Winter coughs and colds - Practice good hygiene

Every year, thousands of people get a bout of cold, (which is not the same as influenza), but can still leave you feeling unwell for 7-10 days. This year, there seems to be a particularly nasty version doing the rounds – the Queen has only just recovered after weeks of staying indoors at Sandringham – and it seems to be widespread in the community. In fact, I have only just recovered from the virus myself after three weeks feeling dreadful.

One of the key characteristics of the infection is that it appears to cause a hacking cough.

Although it is too early to say for sure, I suspect that the bug that’s causing the problems is an adenovirus – not the more common rhinovirus which usually causes colds. (There are over 200 strains of the cold but the rhinovirus causes around 35 per cent of cases.)

If there was a Richter scale for common cold viruses, adenovirus would be right at the top in terms of its impact. The adenovirus is a complex virus with 30 genes compared to just nine genes in rhinovirus, so it can do more things such as cause infections in other parts of the body including the bladder. Importantly, rhinovirus only thrives in cooler temperatures so likes to stay put in the nose and throat which are around 33 degrees Celsius. Adenovirus can survive at 37 degrees Celsius – internal body temperature – so can push far down into the lungs, causing a chesty cold and coughing,’ he explains. Rhinovirus, therefore, tend to cause less deep coughing.

Adenovirus is non-discriminate and attacks people of all age groups. Whether you are nine or ninety, you are not going to be safe from this infection. However, older people – including the Queen who is 90 – can struggle more to overcome the cold because their immune systems are less effective and are more easily tired due to constant coughing.

There isn’t much you can do except nurse a cold and alleviate the symptoms. Antibiotics won’t work in the vast majority of cases because the common cold is caused by a virus.

A small percentage of people will go on to develop a more serious secondary bacterial infection in the lungs.

Of course, it is better not to pick up the adenovirus in the first place. The common cold is the most common infectious disease in humans and is spread through by droplets in the air and through close contact with infected people and even transfer from door knobs and other household objects.

Symptoms start less than two days after exposure and can include coughing, sore throat, runny nose, sneezing and headache.

The key is to practise good hygiene – wash your hands before eating and touching your face and have a balanced healthy diet with plenty of rest.

Article originally written by Prof John Oxford for the Hippocratic Post