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How to treat symptoms of a cold

Find out how to treat a cold with our comprehensive guide to coughs, colds and sneezes.

What causes a cold?

A group of viruses affecting the respiratory system are responsible for most colds, and the rhinovirus is the most common. You might not always be aware when you come into contact with one of these viruses, because your immune system often clears it away before it causes symptoms. Or it may cause a simple head cold, with the symptoms we’re all familiar with: a runny nose, sneezing, sore throat and coughing.

If you’re run down or have a weakened immune system, you may develop a more severe flu-like virus. Everyone’s immune system is different, so some people are battling colds all the time, while others might get through a year without a hint of a sneeze. Babies and the elderly are most susceptible.

How does a cold spread?

Colds are spread via contact with other people – which is why they’re more common in winter, when we tend to be crowded together indoors. Colds are often picked up from schools and nurseries – children then take them home to their parents, who go on to spread them around their workplace.

The viruses that cause colds live in mucus inside the nose, and are transferred via coughs and sneezes, and through hand contact and contaminated surfaces. Door knobs, light switches, taps and other surfaces touched by lots of people are all likely to be covered in cold viruses. When you shake hands with an infected person or touch an infected surface, and then touch your nose or eyes, you infect yourself.

Can you prevent a cold?

It’s difficult to completely avoid colds, but there are steps you can take to lower your risk. One great cold-fighting strategy is to wash your hands regularly through the day, to get rid of the germs that cause infections.

You should also maintain a healthy immune system by eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, trying to stress-proof your body and make sure you’re getting enough sleep – you’re much more susceptible to colds if you’re stressed, tired and eating poorly.

A study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found regular exercise in winter could cut your chance of catching a cold by 46 per cent.

Taking the herb echinacea for at least 10 days throughout the cold season could reduce the number of colds you get and the severity of symptoms. Vitamin D can boost immunity, so in winter, when there isn’t enough sunlight for your body to produce vitamin D, it’s best to take a supplement.

How to treat a cold

A review of studies found taking a high dose of Vitamin C on the first day of symptoms could help reduce the length of a cold. To relieve symptoms, try decongestant Olbas Oil and take paracetamol.

There’s probably no real reason to stay off work unless you want to – you’re most likely to pass on a cold two to three days after you become infected, and you may not be aware you have one at this point. However, staying at home will help you feel better

This article has been adapted from longer features appearing in Healthy, the Holland & Barrett magazine. Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP before trying any remedies.