Combating the common cold

28th August 2013

The dropping temperatures and shorter days marks the incoming heart of Winter, and for those so predisposed it’s unfortunately also the peak of what is often termed as ‘cold season’; that time of year when it seems everyone is starting to go down with various minor illnesses/viruses and having to suffer all of the nasty congestion, coughing, and spluttering that invariably goes with it. These unpleasant viruses that tend to circulate at this time of year bring misery to thousands, often leading to enforced days off of work and – even worse – enforced days off of the squash court!

In a bit of a break from the norm today, we’re going to take a look at the common cold and what we can do avoid succumbing to its miserable clutches – it’s an unfortunate fact that those regularly partaking in very high-intensity exercise (such as that in our squash matches/training) but who don’t get sufficient recovery, can often become more susceptible to certain viruses. So what, if anything, can we do to help reduce our chances of falling foul to one of these horrid bugs?

For the standard cold or virus that leaves you sniffing, sneezing, and coughing, the bad news is that there is unfortunately very little that your doctor can do for you*. Some estimates suggest the average person will suffer from around 200 colds in their lifetimes (though susceptibility tends to vary by individual), and doctor’s surgeries would soon be overwhelmed if people visited their GP for every minor cold or sniffle that they developed.

These viruses can be incredibly frustrating however, leaving you bunged up, inflamed, and listless, and desperate to do anything to get rid of them and back to a normal routine of working, socialising, and getting on the squash court! It is here where so many pharmaceutical companies and alternative health promoters alike have spotted an opportunity to make rather a lot of money, offering a whole host of promised potions and ‘cures’.

Unfortunately – and despite what these product peddlers may tell you – there is no magical ‘cure’ for the common cold, beyond waiting for it to simply run its course. In fact, there are sadly very few treatments available that even have any effect on the symptoms at all – despite various anecdotes, popular remedies like Echinacea, Vitamin C, Zinc Lozenges, and Homeopathic potions (actually just small vials of pure water or inert sugar pills) have been shown to have either very little or no appreciable effect whatsoever.

You’ll doubtless hear anecdotes from friends/colleagues of some miracle remedy that they’ve tried that they swore made them better overnight, but numerous controlled clinical trials have been performed on all of these claimed cures and we’ve still yet to find anything even approaching a statistically significant beneficial effect.

Vitamin C, for example, has alone been subjected to over 30 trials involving tens of thousands of people, and while supplementing with it may offer some health benefits to some individuals, there is a severe lack of consistent and convincing evidence that it can treat or prevent the common cold. The positive results people report from most of these interventions are usually just down to the virus and its symptoms subsiding naturally leaving people mistakenly correlating their recovery to a remedy that was taken, or from a simple placebo effect where the belief that the tonic that they are using will help relieve symptoms is strong enough that they actually do report ‘feeling’ some benefit.

Although there is little or nothing that can be practically done to affect the virus causing these cold syndromes then, there are some things that can be done to actually treat and somewhat relieve the symptoms. The symptoms themselves (runny nose, watery eyes, sweating, sore throat, aches etc.) are actually a sign of your immune system at work trying to eradicate and clear the virus, but it is these symptoms that can cause us such major discomfort.  Dr Steven Novella wrote a great blog piece here on which is well worth a read, that discusses several of the treatments that have a proven – if usually somewhat small – beneficial effect on symptoms, including NSAIDs and some decongestants. Dr Novella also looks at exactly why many other alternative treatments that claim to have a positive effect actually invariably don’t.


How to avoid the miserable clutches of the common cold in the first place?

As with many things, prevention is better than cure. Firstly, the foundation of any healthy lifestyle should always be based upon good nutrition, getting enough proper daily rest/sleep, and the avoidance of excess stress wherever possible – studies show that lacking in any of these areas can increase the likelihood of picking up minor illnesses and viruses, particularly so for very active types such as squash players who can all too often drain their reserves through frequent hard training with inadequate recovery.

Beyond this, one of the more specific pieces of advice from many virology experts to help you dodge illness-causing bugs, is to wash your hands regularly – particularly after coming into contact with things like public door handles, electronic remote controls, or handrails (keeping an alcohol-based hand sanitizer in your bag or at your desk is a good idea). Try also to avoid keep touching your face (most of us do this around 20 times an hour without even realising), as this is one very common way that bugs are transmitted from our hands into our bodies, usually via our noses or eyes.

Finally, perhaps some slightly more obvious advice is to avoid also being in close contact with those already suffering from colds, whose highly contagious sneezes and coughs are the biggest culprit in spreading the virus – unfortunately for squash players, being in the close confines of a court sweaty and panting is a perfect storm for virus transmission, so avoid going on court with a playing partner showing signs of symptoms, and if you’re the one with the cold do yourself and your opponent a favour by staying off court and going home to rest!


For further reading I recommend checking out Jennifer Ackerman’s book “Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold”, there’s a good brief summary article from her here and an interesting short interview with her here.

*It’s important to differentiate a standard cold/virus from the flu here. Full-blown influenza is considerably more severe than the common cold, and can potentially present more serious health risks to certain populations. ‘Proper’ flu is characterised by fatigue, muscle aches, and fever symptoms that are less typical in the common cold, and which also have a tendency to last longer. Most people will recover within a week or two, but other complications can develop in those with other health issues or suppressed immune systems. If you have developed flu-like symptoms that are more severe in nature or that have not regressed within a normal timeframe and you have concerns, you should always contact your GP or a qualified medical professional.


Gary Nisbet

B.Sc.(Hons), CSCS, NSCA-CPT, Dip. FTST
SquashSkills Fitness & Performance Director

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