Can you stop a cold before it starts?

We asked a trio of experts

01 August 2019 - 08:32 By Sanet Oberholzer
You're most infectious in the first few days and should stay at home to avoid spreading the infection to others, says clinical virologist Professor Diana Hardie.
You're most infectious in the first few days and should stay at home to avoid spreading the infection to others, says clinical virologist Professor Diana Hardie.
Image: 123RF/ lightfieldstudios

We're past the middle of winter, but that doesn't mean we're in the clear yet: pesky colds are still running amok in schools, homes and offices.

Sometimes you can feel a cold creeping up on you and, before you know it, it has you gripped in its claws. Since prevention is better than cure, is there any way to stop a cold in its tracks? 

We asked three experts. Here are their responses:

DR FIKILE MABENA

Paediatrician and infectious diseases specialist at Wits

The common cold is a viral infection affecting the upper airways and is defined by the presence of a runny nose and cough for about five to seven days. Other symptoms may include acute nasal congestion, fever, sore throat, muscle pain and headache.

Antibiotics should not be used to treat the cold because it is caused by a virus and not a bacteria. The cold symptoms are usually what is treated with anti-fever medication and cough mixtures. However, multiple studies have shown that, in children, cough mixtures are ineffective in reducing a cough when one has a cold.

Since there isn’t much more than supportive treatment for the cold, prevention becomes important. There are some practices that can reduce the spread of the cold and help prevent it:

  • Appropriate disposal of used tissues;
  • Washing your hands or using hand disinfectant regularly during the day;
  • Avoiding touching your eyes and mouth; and
  • Eating healthily, exercising, getting enough rest and managing stress to ensure a healthy immune system.

PROFESSOR DIANA HARDIE

Clinical virologist

At this time of the year there are a host of different respiratory viruses that cause the common cold. Immunity following these infections is short-lived and we all experience repeated attacks throughout our lives. Young children, in particular, experience, on average, six to eight respiratory tract infections per year and are a major source of infection to family and friends. 

There is no specific antiviral therapy or vaccine for most of these viruses and once symptoms begin, the disease will run its course. 

There is very little evidence to support the use of supplements such as vitamin C, zinc and other herbal remedies
Professor Diana Hardie, clinical virologist

Supportive treatment may alleviate the symptoms to some extent, but there is very little evidence to support the use of supplements such as vitamin C, zinc and other herbal remedies. Antibiotics should be avoided unless there is clear evidence of bacterial infection.

Those who are infected can readily spread the infection to others by coughing, sneezing and contaminating their surroundings with their respiratory secretions. Care should be taken to dispose of used tissues, as well as to wash your hands and contaminated objects.

Patients are most infectious in the first few days and should stay at home to avoid spreading the infection to others.

Patients at risk of complicated infections, such as the elderly, infants and those with underlying lung disease, should avoid crowded, enclosed spaces at this time of year. For those who are especially vulnerable, a properly fitted [surgical] mask might assist in preventing infection in situations where the risk of exposure is high.

LILA BRUK

Registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Association for Dietetics in South Africa 

There are various foods [that research has found] to assist with improving immune function. Some of the potentially most effective include:

  • Garlic, which has been found to boost the potency of immune cells in the body and thus protect against infection.
  • Fermented foods (eg kimchi, yoghurt and sauerkraut), which also have positive immune-boosting effects. This is in part due to the probiotic cultures they contain, as well as other products that are formed during the fermentation process.
  • Probiotics may also be beneficial in assisting with recovery from influenza. A recent study found that supplementing with [the probiotic cultures] Lactobacillus plantarum and Leuconostoc mesenteroides helped to improve the outcome of influenza in animal studies.

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