It starts with a tickle at the back of your throat and before you know it you’re dragging yourself through your day, coughing, spluttering and honking into a handkerchief.
Your work colleagues try to shield themselves from your germs, your partner is sympathetic, but let’s face it, you’re disgusting to be around.
A cold is a virus and on average we’ll each catch around 200 in a lifetime, adding up to around five years of wheezing and sneezing. There’s never a good time to catch a dose of man flu – or if you’re a woman, a common cold. If you train, or work out, it’s vital to build a healthy immune system, especially during the winter months. Here’s how.
The role of ascorbic acid or vitamin C in preventing colds is well known but often overstated. In fact there’s little evidence to suggest the ubiquitous anti-cold supplements make much difference to either the number of colds you catch or their duration, if you’re an average punter.
But…If you train hard – really hard – then chances are your immune system takes a battering. For these athletes, vitamin C is a key ally in the battle against performance sapping colds. A study of 642 marathon runners, skiers, and soldiers on sub-arctic exercises found that taking a daily dose of 200mg reduced their chances of catching a cold by half, compared to the general population.
Until recently, experts turned their noses up at claims that extracts of the North American coneflower, echinacea, were good for preventing the onset of winter illnesses. It turns out that while they are right about the popular herb making little difference in terms of the number of colds you catch, it may help to reduce their duration.
A randomised control study of 755 participants found that when taken three times daily for four months, echinacea cut by a quarter the length of time the sufferer’s cold lasted . But before you run off to the chemist or health food shop it’s worth pointing out the study was well conducted, it was criticised for not having declared who funded it.
Zinc works in two ways to prevent colds. First, it helps stop the rhinovirus that’s responsible for up to 80% of common colds from reproducing, and second, it seems to help prevent the virus from attaching itself to the mucus membranes in your nose.
A recent study in the US found that when taken at the onset of a cold, a zinc supplement could cut the number of days the cold lasted by about half. The report also noted that taken over a period of at least five months, zinc appeared to have a protective effect against colds, particularly in children. One word of caution though – while zinc is an essential component of a healthy immune system, taking too much can cause some pretty nasty side effects.The best advice is to stick to a good multi vitamin because the doses are carefully designed to work with your body.
Relax and socialise
Think hiding yourself away at the onset of winter will protect you from colds and flu? Think again. The research shows one of the best things you can do to prevent your training regime getting disrupted by illness is to get out there and socialise. While you might imagine greater contact with a larger number of people puts you into contact with more potential colds, the reality is that you’re better off getting out and about.
Psychologists from a university in Pittsburgh studied a group of 355 people, looking at their sociability. When they exposed the control group to a cold causing virus, they discovered a linear relationship between the number and quality of social interactions an individual had and their likelihood of developing a cold. Simply put, the more you mingle with your fellow man (and woman) the less colds you catch.
If the worst comes to the worst and that stuffy nose turns into a streamer, you could do far worse than reach for a saucepan and a tin of chicken soup. That’s because new research backs up the old wives’ tales that chicken soup is not only good for the soul, but helps get cold sufferers back on their feet.
An American scientist at the University of Nebraska decided to check out his grandmother’s claims about the miraculous cold curing capabilities of her chicken soup. It seems the soup slows the movement of white blood cells, causing an anti inflammatory effect that may help to ease a sore throat. If you don’t have access to a Nebraskan grandmother, don’t panic – even canned chicken soup has a similar effect. Bon appetite!