Coughs and colds

Coughs and colds

Why do we get coughs and colds in winter?

The most common ailments contracted during winter are coughs and colds. While many people manage to avoid falling sick, especially those who are fit and have a strong immune system, for most of us a week or two with a runny nose and cough is an annual event.

There are over 100 different viruses that can cause the common cold, and they are mutating all the time, which is why finding a cure is tantamount to impossible. The cold infects the upper airways, and can be caught by droplet spread, when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The constant cough that can accompany the cold makes this a very easy disease to contract in the winter months, and most people will catch a cold two to four times a year, especially during the winter months.

A winter cough is usually a symptom of the cold. However, during the cold months, bad weather can worsen some respiratory problems. People with lung or bronchial complaints often have more difficulty in breathing during cold spells, and wet weather usually aggravates coughs.

Cold weather drives us indoors during winter, into close proximity with other people. Damp, crowded conditions, such as buses, shops and pubs, can help any airborne infection to spread rapidly, especially coughs and colds.

How do you treat a dose of the sniffles?

There really is no other treatment for a winter cold than rest. Drinking fluids might help you avoid becoming achy and dehydrated. Paracetamol or a similar painkiller, taken in the recommended doses, can help to treat the symptoms. Decongestants may be useful in reducing the inflammation of your nose, helping you to breathe more easily.


Usually a cold will go away after two or three weeks. In the meantime, you may feel run down and miserable, but there is no need to stop your normal activities or visit the doctor. For those few weeks, however, do expect to become more tired more quickly.

The complications of winter colds include sinusitis, earache, tonsillitis or pneumonia if the mucus membrane becomes infected. If you suspect you have developed any of these complications, you should consult your doctor for advice and treatment.

A winter cold can produce an acute, irritating cough. Normally, a cough is a reflex action to clear the throat of any foreign bodies or particles, such as dust. But when you get a cold, the infected mucus from your nose drips down the back of your throat in a process called post-nasal drip. This post-nasal drip causes a type of cough that is not helpful at all.

This type of cough is annoying and unnecessary. Some people find simple over-the-counter cough mixtures helpful in suppressing such a cough, although there is no strong medical evidence of benefit. Your local pharmacist can advise you on which product might be most effective for your cough. Don’t take a cough mixture for a prolonged period. If you have a cough for more than a couple of weeks, it could indicate something more serious than a cold.

You should visit your GP if you have any of these symptoms with a cough:

  • Coughing up blood.
  • Severe chest pain while coughing.
  • Losing weight unintentionally.

What’s the best way to avoid catching cold?

There is no foolproof way of avoiding infection with a cold. What you can do is minimise your potential exposure to the cold, and take precautions not to spread the infection further if you do catch a cold.

In so far as you can, stay away from anyone you know who has a cold. Avoid crowds and crowded, confined places where infection will spread more quickly. If you are in physical contact with someone who has a cold, wash your hands before touching your own face. Shaking the hands of someone with a cold is the most common way of contracting the infection. Keep rooms well aired.

If you are unlucky and you catch a cold:

  • Be responsible and try not to spread it further.
  • Use tissues rather than a hankie for your runny nose, and dispose of the tissues in the bin after using them.
  • Wash your hands, especially after sneezing or blowing your nose.
  • Don’t smoke, as it will only irritate your mucus membrane even more.
  • If you sleep with your head high up on a couple of pillows, you should be able to breathe more easily at night.

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