There's no guarantee you'll get through winter without catching a cold, but there are ways you can make yourself less susceptible. If you do get ill, there are ways to lessen the symptoms, too. Dr. Sarah Brewer explains.

What exactly is a cold?

Colds and flu are spread by different viruses. There are more than 200 common cold viruses and just three strains of flu – influenza A, B and C (A and B affect humans). Influenza B usually causes milder symptoms and is the virus most likely to affect children. These viruses are spread through droplets (sneezing and coughing) and after contact with shared items, including work surfaces, door handles or keyboards.

How to avoid a cold

Eat a Mediterranean-style diet: If your immune system is weakened by lifestyle factors like ageing, lack of sleep, stress or smoking, you’re much more likely to get ill. To counteract this, aim to eat a varied Mediterranean-style diet that includes wholegrains, beans, fruit, vegetables, seafood, olive oil, onions and garlic.

Top-up on… iron: Lean meat is an important source of iron which is needed for immune cells to fight infections, so make sure that’s a part of your diet, too. If you follow a plant-based diet, iron is found in dark-green leaves, whole grains, pulses and dried fruit.

Top-up on… vitamin D: Foods fortified with vitamin D will support winter immunity when you’re unable to make vitamin D in your skin (although a vitamin D supplement is also needed). Deficiencies in vitamin D could lead to a weaker immune system, making it easier for you to fall ill. Vitamin D directly interacts with the cells responsible for fighting infection1 and several studies have shown links between deficiency and respiratory tract infections like colds, bronchitis and pneumonia.2, 3

Top up on… turmeric: This nutrient’s active ingredient, curcumin, is a powerful antioxidant which may help to support immune function by protecting against the free radicals that cause disease.

Top up on… vitamin C: Research published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows that ensuring you’re taking enough vitamin C may help the immune system ward off colds and flu, especially in those who are stressed.4 Although vitamin C supplements will not stop you from catching a cold, studies have shown taking this supplement can reduce their severity and duration.5, 6

Top up on… vitamin B6: Each B vitamin plays an important role in the body, including B6 which is involved in amino acid metabolism, red cell production and the creation of neurotransmitters (brain chemicals).7 It also contributes to the normal function of the immune system as well as the reduction of tiredness and fatigue.8

Lifestyle changes that could stop you getting a cold

  • Age
    A child under six or an older adult has an un-primed immune system compared with someone in their 30s. Namely, a child’s immune system hasn’t fully matured and - if they’ve never been in contact with a certain illness before - they may not be immune to it. You can expect a child to get a cold eight or more times in a year.9
  • Exercise
    Any type of exercise – from a cycle ride to a yoga session or even a brisk walk – for at least half an hour on most days will give your immune system a boost. Be careful not to push your body too hard if you’re already feeling under the weather, though, as over-exercising supresses immunity.
  • Hygiene
    Make sure to always cough into a tissue and discard afterwards and encourage your kids to do the same, as they’re constantly bringing home nasty bugs from the school cafeteria or playground. Another good tip is to avoid sharing. It might be tempting but sharing cups and glasses - even with loved ones – means you’ll dramatically increase your chances of catching a lurgy.
  • Lack of sleep
    When you sleep less than the recommended seven to eight hours a night this can negatively affect your immune system. It also makes you prone to serious medical conditions such as obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.10 If you’re struggling to get to sleep take a look at these soothing drinks that could help you settle into your slumber.
  • Stress
    If you’re constantly stressed your body will find a way to tell you. Stress hormones weaken your immune system - meaning people under chronic stress are more susceptible to viral illnesses like the flu. They also prolong your recovery time.
  • Smoking
    Smoking damages and inactivates the immune cells that fight infection, making the battle against illness that much harder. This process can be reversed if cigarettes are given up.

How to lessen symptoms if you do catch a cold

  • Echinacea

    Originally used by Native Americans to treat infections such as boils and fevers, this traditional herbal remedy (THR) contains substances known as echinacins, which stimulate the immune system by increasing the number and activity of white blood cells involved in fighting viral, fungal and bacterial infections.11 Echinacea also has direct anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antiviral properties,12 with much of the research around this herbal remedy focusing on the common cold.

    Drinking Echinacea tea is effective in shortening the length of cold symptoms13 and research suggests it can decrease the odds of developing a cold by 58%.14 As well as this, another study shows taking Echinacea regularly may improve the effectiveness of a flu vaccination.15 Evidence shows this THR boosts the immune system, which could help the body fight off future viruses and infections.16

    While many studies focus on Echinacea-based tea, it can also be taken in supplement form. If you’re taking any prescribed medicines, check for interactions before taking Echinacea. It should not be used during pregnancy or given to children under 12.

  • Vitamin E

    This powerful antioxidant helps the body fight off infection. According to one study, vitamin E is an important nutrient for maintaining the immune system, especially in the aged.17 The body needs vitamin E to boost its immune system and helps widen blood vessels. It helps with blood from clotting, too.18

    Not keen on capsules? Top up your nutrients the tasty way with vitamin D, vitamin C or men’s or women’s multivitamin gummies.

Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn't possible, supplements can help. This article isn't intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.

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