Charting the course of the common cold

Staying well

Trying not to catch a cold or flu in the first place is the best way of avoiding the symptoms. Strengthening your body's natural defences, avoiding stress, getting enough sleep and eating healthily can all help you avoid catching a cold or flu.

Your diet can help
Experts think that vitamin C, zinc and cod liver oil help to strengthen your body's natural defences. Citrus fruits (oranges, lemons and limes), kiwi fruit and red peppers all contain a lot of vitamin C. Red meat and wholegrains contain zinc. Eating a healthy, balanced diet is the best way to get these nutrients, but if you're not always able to eat a varied range of foods including five portions of fruit or vegetables a day, it may be worth taking vitamin and mineral tablets.

Consider a flu jab
The NHS recommends that everyone aged 65 or over should have a flu jab each year. You should also consider having a flu jab if:

  • you have bronchitis, asthma, emphysema, heart disease, kidney disease or diabetes;
  • your immune system is weakened by disease or treatment; or
  • you live in a nursing home, residential home or other long-stay home.
  • If you, or someone you look after, fit into any of these groups, you should speak to your doctor or practice nurse to arrange a flu jab.

Catching a cold or flu

Day 1
Symptoms: None

Cold and flu viruses get into your body through your nose, throat and sometimes through your eyes. They can't move by themselves so they can only reach the cells in your nose, throat or eyes if you breathe them in through the air or put them there with your hands.

Catching colds and flu viruses through the air
Colds and flu viruses work by using your body's cells to build many identical copies of themselves. When your cells become full they burst, releasing viruses into your nose and throat. Each time you sneeze or cough, these viruses get thrown into the air in tiny droplets of mucus. Breathing in droplets of mucus from other people's sneezes and coughs takes the virus into your nose and throat.

Catching colds and flu viruses from your hands
Some droplets of mucus may end up settling on nearby surfaces - including hands, doorknobs and handrails. You are likely to catch a cold or flu by touching areas where mucus has settled, and then touching your nose or rubbing your eyes. Shaking hands with someone who has a cold or flu is an easy way of catching the virus from them.

Suffering the symptoms

Days 2 to 3
Symptoms: Runny nose, sore throat

You've now caught a cold or flu, and although there is no cure, you can treat the symptoms and make yourself feel more comfortable while you wait for your body to fight off the virus. Your pharmacist has remedies that can help, including pastilles or lozenges to soothe sore throats, decongestants to unblock your nose or sinuses, cough suppressants to stop a tickly cough and cough expectorants to loosen a chesty cough.

Days 4 to 5
Symptoms: Blocked nose, sneezing, sore throat, painful sinuses

The virus continues its attack while you wait for your body's natural defences to fight it. The mucus in your nose becomes thicker with dead cells, and this can lead to blocked and painful sinuses. Your throat continues to be irritated and becomes sore and painful.

Days 6 to 9

Symptoms: Tiredness and fatigue, high temperature

Your body's natural defences, the white blood cells, arrive at your nose and throat and start fighting the virus. Your cold or flu has lasted several days now, and you are using more energy to fight the infection so you feel tired and need extra sleep. It is important that you get plenty of rest and keep drinking lots of fluids.

Getting better

Days 10 to 14
Symptoms: Symptoms improve

As your body's natural defences overcome the virus, your symptoms start to get better. You may still have a cough or need to blow your nose for some time afterwards, as your body is still making mucus to clear out the dead cells. Keep resting and drinking plenty of fluids, and carry on taking remedies to stop your symptoms coming back.

If your symptoms don't improve, you should speak to your pharmacist, call NHS Direct on 0845 4647 or see your doctor.

Wash your hands regularly, particularly during the peak cold and flu season (October to February).

Approximately one million of your nose and throat cells may have been invaded by the virus within as little as 12 hours.

Sneezes travel up to 30 feet - the length of a bus or train carriage.