Each year 1.5 million Australians take time off work with a cold. Caitlin Reid shows you how to stop a cold dead in its tracks, before it stops you.
As they say, prevention is better than a cure. Here are three ways to protect yourself this winter.
Boost your immunity
You don't catch a cold; a cold catches you. When your immune system isn't functioning at its best, viruses, bacteria and their friends take over, and that tickle in your throat sets in. The best way to prevent a cold is to arm your immune system with full-fighting power. Eating a healthy, balanced diet full of fresh vegetables and fruit, lean protein and healthy fats will provide a good basis. Ensuring adequate intake of iron, zinc and vitamins A, C, E, B6 and B12 will support your working immune cells. Too much fat will slow your immune system. Regular exercise, adequate sleep, stress management, limiting alcohol and caffeine, and avoiding smoking all help too.
Avoid catching a cold
Colds and flu can be passed on simply by coughing, sneezing or touching surfaces which harbour the germ, so make it a habit to regularly wash your hands, as this reduces the likelihood of you contracting a respiratory tract infection.
Try to limit your contact with people suffering from colds and flu. If you can't keep your distance from people such as your family, in addition to washing your hands frequently, keep the surfaces in your house clean with germ-killing, antibacterial disinfectant from your local supermarket.
Get a flu shot
In 2004, four out of five Australians aged over 65 were vaccinated, and now Australians of all ages are being encouraged to get a shot, with many workplaces offering free injections. The effectiveness of the vaccine depends on the strain circulating that year. If scientists predict the strains correctly, the vaccine can reduce your risk of developing the flu by 70-90%. A flu shot is the best way to prevent and control the flu, however, antiviral drugs can also be prescribed by your GP. If you're 65 or older the Federal Government subsidises free flu vaccines.
Five common ways to shorten the duration of a cold and maybe even stop you from getting one.
Research on the use of garlic to treat a cold isn't vast. However, a 2001 study did find people given an allicin-containing garlic supplement had a shorter duration of illness, and were less likely to develop a cold. Garlic seems to be most effective when used as a preventative measure.
Fluids help ease the symptoms associated with colds and flu. Warm fluids, such as soup or herbal teas, can help loosen mucus and keep your throat moist. Avoid caffeine-containing drinks and alcohol, as they have a drying effect. You should, of course, drink plenty of water.
Echinacea is probably the most recognised herbal supplement for the prevention and treatment of colds and flu. Currently, there is some controversy over whether echinacea is in fact as effective as claimed. Some studies clearly show echinacea reduces the duration of colds, while others fail to show any difference at all. There is, however, sufficient evidence to show that more research is needed to pin down whether the use of echinacea boosts immune function.
4. Vitamin C
A review of studies in 2004 found that taking 200mg or more of vitamin C as a preventative measure reduces the duration and severity of a cold, but not the incidence. In adults, this vitamin C intake could shorten cold duration by 8%, compared to 14% in kids. However, gastrointestinal problems often stop people from taking large doses of vitamin C daily. To shorten a cold, vitamin C supplementation in large, divided doses over several days is likely to alleviate symptoms or shorten the duration of a cold.
Zinc supplementation has been considered as a means of reducing the duration of colds and flu, as this mineral plays an important role in maintaining immune function. While zinc lozenges are thought to reduce the duration and symptoms of a cold, research has only found weak evidence to support this. In fact, doses of zinc greater than 30mg can cause stomach upsets and even vomiting, and prolonged excessive zinc supplementation can lead to copper deficiency.
Relieve the symptoms
While rest is the best cure, here are some ways to feel better while you fight it off.
Aches and pains
Slow down, rest and get extra sleep. You could also try a hot pack as you relax in bed.
Honey has been shown to ease coughing and improve sleep in people with colds and flu.
Keep up the fluids, such as water, soup and non-caffeinated beverages. Fluids will keep you hydrated, make you feel better and loosen any mucus.
Gargle with warm, salted water to relieve a sore throat. Warm pureed vegetable soup is also a great way to ease the pain.
Our experts reveal how they avoid and treat a cold
How do you prevent a cold? If you 'catch' it soon enough, you can stop a cold. The trick is to go to bed early, and take zinc and vitamin C tablets. If you feel a sore throat coming on, gargle with warm water with a little salt to reduce swelling and infection.
How do you treat a cold? Go to bed if you can – at least take things easy – take Panadol and/or cold tablets, and drink plenty of hot water with lemon. Try a steam inhalation over a sink of hot water or a vaporiser two to three times a day - a few drops of tea-tree or eucalyptus oil added to the hot water helps ease congestion. You can also put the tea-tree oil in a burner and keep it by your bed while you sleep.
What's your best tip? Drink plenty of fluids like broth (clear soup), weak tea with lemon, herbal tea or just plain water. Fluids keep any mucus liquefied so it is easier to cough up or blow out your nose.
How do you prevent a cold? With good hygiene. I do five simple things: I cover my mouth and nose when I sneeze, wash my hands, avoid sharing personal items such as toothbrushes or towels, keep surfaces clean and avoid close contact with people who are sick. I also recommend the flu vaccine.
How do you treat a cold? I get plenty of rest, drink lots of fluid, take regular paracetamol or ibuprofen to help relieve a fever if I have one, and relieve a sore throat with lozenges. Prescription antiviral drugs are also effective in reducing illness if taken within 48 hours of developing the flu.
What's your best tip? Keep fit and healthy, don't smoke, get plenty of sleep and exercise, and eat a balanced diet to keep the immune system strong and prevent colds. Try to keep away from people with a cold, and wash your hands at all times. If you're at risk of developing the flu, get a flu shot every year.
How do you prevent a cold? Three things keep our immune system one step ahead of a cold: diet, exercise and lifestyle management. I follow a diet full of fresh, in-season organic vegetables and make chicken or lentil and vegetable soup. I exercise regularly and make sure I get plenty of sleep, manage my stress and limit caffeine and alcohol. I also take supplements including vitamin C, Immunodefense and antioxidants.
How do you treat a cold? I take vitamin C every two hours for a day when I feel a cold coming on. I find this reduces the duration. If I miss the first day, I take vitamin C regularly. I also take a Chinese herb called Andrographis, which studies have shown can reduce the duration of a cold.
What's your best tip? You don't catch a cold, a cold catches you, so maintain a healthy lifestyle, eat well, exercise regularly and wash your hands frequently.
What do you recommend to your athletes to prevent a cold? Ensuring their eating plan provides adequate fuel for training and recovery is a great start. Eating carbohydrate during exercise appears to limit the degree of exercise-induced immuno-suppression, so I advise athletes to consume 30 to 60g of carbohydrate per hour. Despite their best efforts, if cold symptoms appear I advise taking 500mg vitamin C and 50mg zinc per day. Research indicates vitamin C and zinc may help reduce the duration and severity of a cold.
What's your best tip? Manage stress, minimise exposure to germs, get adequate sleep and eat a varied healthy diet.
How do you prevent a cold? A healthy lifestyle with a balanced diet. If you are at high risk of developing the flu, get a vaccine. Look after your personal hygiene and avoid coming into contact with others who are sick.
How do you treat a cold? Keep up plenty of fluids and get your rest. Studies have shown that vitamin C, vitamin E, fish oil, zinc and honey, in particular manuka, can reduce the duration and symptoms of a cold.
What's your best tip? Make sure it is a cold. Sometimes the sneezing and runny nose is caused by allergies such as hay fever. You need to address the underlying factor.
What have you caught?
What is it? Colds are a mild infectious disease caused by more than a hundred different viruses. Rhinoviruses and coronaviruses are responsible for 50-70% of colds.
Who gets it? Cold viruses are the most infectious disease that we contract. Adults average two to four days per year with a cold, while children average six to 10 days, depending on their age.
Signs and symptoms: A cold usually starts with a tickle in your throat, followed by sneezing, coughing, runny nose and general fatigue.
Duration: Some colds can last for less than 24 hours; others continue for up to 10 days.
What is it? An acute respiratory illness that is caused by the influenza virus.
Who gets it? Influenza affects every age group, but children and adults over 65 are most likely to develop the flu.
Signs and symptoms: Being more severe than the common cold, influenza causes fever, headaches, muscle aches and a strong cough.
Duration: The fever may last for up to five days, and the illness usually resolves within three to seven days. A cough and fatigue can last for weeks.
What is it? Inflammation of the lining of the airways, usually caused by viruses or smoking.
Who gets it? Affects both adults and children, but more so during winter.
Signs and symptoms: The most common sign of bronchitis is a cough that 'brings up' yellow-green mucus, indicative of infection. Sore throat and chest, fever, fatigue and breathlessness may also occur.
Duration: Acute bronchitis comes on suddenly, causing severe symptoms, but only lasts a couple of weeks. Chronic bronchitis lasts longer.
What is it? A contagious lung infection caused by viruses, bacteria or fungi, or by inhaling foreign substances. The lungs fill with mucus or fluids and cannot function properly, meaning oxygen cannot reach the blood and the cells.
Who gets it? One in 100 people gets pneumonia each year.
Signs and symptoms: It is characterised by fevers, flu symptoms, chest pain and rapid, swallow breathing, and sometimes sufferers can have headaches, confusion, fatigue and loss of appetite.
Duration: With treatment, most bacterial pneumonias can be cured in one to two weeks. Viral pneumonias may take longer.
When to seek help
Says Dr John Gullotta of the Australian Medical Association: "See your doctor if you are worried at any stage or if you develop green or yellow mucus, you are vomiting or have diarrhoea, or have a sore ear or sinuses. Also see your doctor if you develop chestiness." And for those of you who have had close contact with someone with the flu, he adds, "there are two antiviral drugs available on prescription that can help prevent you catching it."