The average adult catches between two and three colds a year (1). This adds up to an estimated 23 million working days lost each year in the US because of the common cold. Colds are, if you’ll pardon the pun, not to be sniffed at.
If you’re fed up with contracting colds, and you’re wondering what you can do about it, then this article is for you. We’ll investigate some of the proven risk factors, showing you why you might be getting more than your fair share of the common cold, and what you can do about it.
Tips to help prevent the common cold.
You Don’t Wash Your Hands Enough
A number of experiments over the years have sought to identify the manner in which the common cold passes from one person to another. A recent study (2) took swabs from already-infected individuals to ascertain where the highest viral concentrations were to be found. Interestingly, on average only 2 in every 25 infected people actually expelled the virus by sneezing or coughing. In contrast, 40% of those people studied – roughly 8 times as many – had the virus on their hands. Indeed, similar studies have been repeated over and over throughout the last few decades, to the point that experts have conceded that many of us actually “self-inoculate”.
Behavioral studies have noted that many of us regularly touch our faces, and experts have further shown that transmitting the common cold virus to our eyes, nose or mouth is one of the most common routes of entry into the body.
This data means two things. Firstly, try to get into the habit of regularly washing your hands throughout the day, especially before eating or drinking. Secondly, try to consciously reduce the number of times you touch your face; every additional contact will increase your chances of infection.
This isn’t just theory. When 16 schools asked all pupils and teachers to use the provided hand sanitizer when entering or leaving any classroom, the rate of absenteeism reduced by almost 20% (3).
You’re Not Sleeping Enough
It been said that laughter is the best medicine, but when it comes to the common cold the truth is that sleep might just be the best solution (4).
153 men and women completed a two week sleep journal, before being voluntary inoculated with the common cold virus. The aim was to see how sleep affects the immune system; specifically with regards to infections with the common cold.
The results showed that those volunteers averaging less than 7 hours of sleep per night were almost three times as likely to develop a cold when compared with those sleeping 8 hours or more.
This shockingly large division in infection rates really helps to underline how important sleep is for the immune system. If you’re unfortunate enough to catch more than your fair share of colds, perhaps now would be a good time to start heading to bed a little earlier each evening.
You Have Young Children
Common colds are responsible for an estimated 30% of all school days lost to sickness (5). This is hardly surprising when you realize that the average child contracts between 4 and 10 colds per year. Such statistics suggest that some younger children may barely go a month between infections.
Of course, there are a number of reasons for this, not least the fact that children tend to have weaker immune systems than adults. At the same time, however, children often don’t understand how viruses can spread, and how they may be accidentally passing their virus onto others.
While there is no guaranteed solution here, investing time into teaching your child about the importance of washing their hands, keeping their fingers way from their mouths and using a tissue can all help to reduce the spread of infection. This, in turn, can mean fewer colds brought home from school, and reduced likelihood of you becoming infected.
You’re Exercising Wrong
In recent decades the government has worked hard to promote the idea of exercise being good for us. And on the whole, that’s an accurate and beneficial concept. But not always. You see, while some kinds of exercises can boost your immune function, other types can have quite the opposite effect.
During a 12 month period, a group of volunteers were asked to complete 45 minutes of moderate exercise each week. Throughout, each individual in the exercise group, together with a non-exercising control group, were asked to keep records of any cold infections. Unsurprisingly, the control group experienced far more infections. Indeed, during the winter months they were almost 3 times as likely as the exercise group to catch a cold. OK, so exercise is a good thing then, right? Well, not so fast?
You see, another study compared the incidence of infections based on how intensely people exercised. Two weeks after a marathon in South Africa, participants were asked to report on any recent or current infection with the common cold. The results showed that runners were twice as likely to suffer a cold as non-runners. What’s more, the faster runners completed the course, the greater the odds of infection.
The key message here is that while moderate exercise can certainly reduce your chance of infection, high intensity exercise is capable of suppressing the immune system. So, if you’re trying to keep yourself healthy and reduce the number of colds that you catch then getting some regular, gentle exercise is likely to help. Just don’t overdo it.
Your Life is Too Stressful
Do you find yourself regularly worrying about your career, your relationship or just what to wear for your evening out? If so, all this stress might just be having an impact on your immune system.
Research has shown that stress, at least under certain circumstances, can affect the immune system (6). This, in turn, can impact how likely you are to catch a cold.
The question is quite what type of stress can lead to this negative impact? Just such a study aimed to find out, asking volunteers to not only complete personality-based questionnaires, but to also report on recent sickness. The results showed that people suffering from severe stress for a period of a month or more (known to experts as ?chronic stressors?) experienced a “substantial increase” in the risk of infection. Fortunately, shorter-term stress seemed to have little or no impact.
The lesson to take away here is that if you’re having a difficult time right now, and you’ve been feeling stressed, fed up or depressed for more than a few weeks, then this may be a good time to start seeking a permanent solution.
You’re Deficient in Vitamin C
Ask any random person how to protect yourself from colds and they’ll almost certainly tell you that you should drink more orange juice. Sadly, things are quite as clear-cut as that.
On the upside, research has shown that a daily vitamin C dose of 80mg, either in supplement form or through your diet, can reduce symptoms of the common cold by between 14% and 21% (7).
That’s the good news. The bad news is that other research suggests that these benefits – while impressive – are most clearly defined in response to long-term vitamin C intake. The results of several studies suggest that suddenly upping your vitamin C intake once you’ve already contracted a cold may actually have little or no impact.
The evidence therefore suggests that if you want to catch fewer colds you can’t afford to wait until you’re actually sick. Instead, try adding a glass of orange juice or a simple dispersible vitamin C tablet to your daily routine to see how much of an impact it has for you.
You Need More Zinc
Vitamin C may be famous for its effect on the common cold, but as it turns out zinc plays an equally important – if rather less well-known – role.
Firstly, studies have shown that consuming supplementary zinc within 24 hours of cold symptoms appearing can reduce both the duration of colds as well as the severity of symptoms. Even more excitingly, however, consistent supplementation with zinc can even reduce the incidence of colds themselves (8).
Great sources of zinc in the diet include meat, dairy, eggs, seeds and nuts so try to bulk up on your intake of these ingredients. As with other nutrients, of course, as an alternative you could just start taking zinc tablets.
You’re a Smoker
In case you need another reason to quit smoking once and for all, the evidence suggests that smokers catch more colds than non-smokers.
Tobacco smoking seems to offer two particular risks when it comes to the common cold. Firstly, smoking involves raising your hand to your mouth – something that we’ve already shown can result in infections. Secondly, smoking can also impact your immune system, meaning that you’re more likely to become infected when actually coming into contact with viruses.
There are a surprisingly large number of factors that can actually impact your odds of getting a cold. While we all know someone who professes to never catch a cold, sadly we’re not all that lucky. As it turns out, however, there are plenty of things you can do to insulate yourself from risk. While even these tips won’t guarantee that you never catch a cold again, they should statistically reduce your odds of catching them.
So start a moderate exercise regime, stay calm, bulk up on zinc and vitamin C, get enough sleep and wash your hands more. In doing so, your previous affinity for the common cold might just become a thing of the past.
(5) Colds & cough
(7) Vitamin C
Matt Durkin has a Master’s Degree in nutrition, and currently works as a scientific advisor for Simply Supplements.