Ah, the holiday season: delicious food, warm drinks, old friends, and of course, the coughs of infectious colleagues who have come into work with colds. It seems like sick people are everywhere in the winter, which leaves us with questions: Does echinacea really help boost your immunity? What exactly is the difference between the flu and a cold? And how can you feel better faster? We turned to Dr. Lee Green, chair of the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Alberta, for answers.
What’s the difference between a common cold and the flu?
Colds make your nose run, and they make you cough, but they don’t come with the high fevers and muscle aches that are characteristic to the flu.
Like the flu, colds are caused by viruses, but while there are only a few flu strains circulating every year, there are dozens of cold viruses—about 160. “The reason there is no vaccine against the cold is that there are so many different viruses,” says Green.
Once you’ve had a cold, you gain immunity to that specific cold virus forever. So if you are exposed to that strain again, either you won’t feel sick at all, or you’ll have a really mild cold that only lasts a day or two. That’s why little kids, who haven’t been exposed to many of these viruses, get so many colds (an average of eight or 10 colds a year), while older people get fewer.
Is there a cold season?
Colds are more common in fall and winter, because we’re spending more time inside, and it makes it easier to pass them on to others.
What’s the best way to prevent catching a cold?
Colds can be spread through the air, but the most common way is by contact. So the key to not getting a cold is to wash your hands well and often. Herbs like echinacea or over-the-counter remedies like Cold-Fx aren’t very effective, says Green. And the idea that bundling up over the winter might help prevent colds is a myth, created by the fact that people tend to get more colds in the winter.
If someone in your house has a cold, don’t worry about disinfecting everything, because cold viruses don’t live very long on surfaces. “Ordinary cleanliness is all you need,” says Green. “The big issue is contact—sneeze into your arm if you’re sick, and have everyone wash their hands often.”
How can you feel better if you’re sick?
“Take your grandma’s advice,” Green says. “The way the research has been going in the past few years, it turns out that what’s most effective are things like chicken soup, honey and lemon juice for coughs, and Vicks VapoRub on your chest overnight.” There’s also some evidence that zinc lozenges or syrup might help with coughs.
Over-the-counter drugs like cough suppressants and decongestants probably won’t help much—they aren’t very effective, though they might help you sleep because they make you drowsy. “Most cold medicines don’t really do much of anything,” says Green. And double check the labels—many combo cold medicines have acetaminophen in them, and if you take two different products at once that both have acetaminophen in them, you could overdose and seriously damage your liver.
How long does a cold last?
You’ll generally feel better after a few days, and the bulk of the cold will be gone after about 10 days. But you might be coughing for over four or five weeks.
There isn’t a prescription to cure a cough: Antibiotics don’t affect viruses, and overprescription of antibiotics can lead to antibiotic-resistant bacteria—a major public health issue. Instead, your body just needs time to recover. “A cold virus lives in the delicate lining of your larger airways,” says Green. “It chews them up and damages them, and when that happens, they don’t make a scab—they produce mucus. You have to give them time to heal, so there’s really no shortcut.”