Fighting the Winter Cold

It's difficult to imagine winter without experiencing a cold, sore throat or sniffle.  The common cold actually refers to upper respiratory tract infections or URTIs for short. On average we can expect to get between two and four colds a year which makes them the most common type of illness we will all suffer over the course of our lives.

Whilst symptoms can vary from person to person, colds are essentially viral infections that take place in the upper airways (i.e. nasal passages, sinuses, throat).

Although there are more than 200 types of viruses that can cause colds, the main ones are rhinovirus, adenovirus, and coronavirus. These viruses make their way into our bodies when we breathe them in or pick them up, from a contaminated surface such as someone else’s hands or a handrail.

They have evolved a very smart strategy for spreading; they irritate the linings of our airways and nasal passages, causing us to cough and sneeze the virus particles out into the air in droplets, where they float around until another human breathes them in or picks them up. 

Spot The Symptoms

The symptoms of an URTI vary depending where the infection takes hold. Sore throats, runny noses, cough and a horse voice can be all caused by common colds.

As well as the specific symptoms caused by the effects of the virus on the airways, there may be generalised symptoms, like fever, headache, tiredness and irritability.

The symptoms don't begin straight away. There's a period of between one and four days while the virus takes hold and multiplies, until it reproduces enough to cause the inflammation and symptoms.

The body's immune system fights back, but it takes several days (about three to seven) before the invaders are overcome and the person recovers.

If you're generally healthy, you'll almost always get better. Which is just as well, because despite our huge advances in medical science there is still no cure for the viruses that cause URTIs.

People with asthma or other chronic lung problems will sometimes have a flare-up of their disease during an URTI and will need to monitor their condition more closely until the infection passes.

Treatment

Antibiotics are of no help because they don't work against viruses. Paracetamol or aspirin can help with symptoms but they only mask, not treat. Cough medicines, although popular, probably aren’t necessary because they have no effect on improving the irritation of the airways. It's actually better to cough up any phlegm in the airways.

If symptoms worsen however it’s important to visit your local GP. But its important to drink lots of fluids to stay hydrated and help your body fight the virus.