First, it’s important to address the psychology of the illness. Everyone gets colds. Mostly, they are varieties of the rhinovirus. This virus is easily spread through coughing, sneezing and touching. It is the third most common diagnosis for doctor visits in the USA. Whilst it is hard to estimate the exact amount of colds people suffer most studies place it somewhere between 2 to 8 per year per person. That’s an incredible amount of potential illness. If you sitting there thinking: “I don’t get 8 colds per year” that’s because sometimes the virus is easily countered by the immune system and may not take hold enough for us to even recognise that we have contracted a cold. You may in fact, only feel off-colour for a few hours or half a day – certainly not long enough to register an illness for most of us. Of course, sometimes the symptoms are much more severe. This may explain why you may know people who say they: “haven’t had a cold in years” or “I don’t get colds”. They may just have a stronger immune system than others or they may not have been exposed to more aggressive forms of the rhinovirus.
Exercise is a key ingredient to a healthy immune system. One of my favourite studies of all time correlated a decreased reporting of colds for subjects that could run faster than an 8min mile compared to those who ran slower. However, performance/fitness and immune system function are not in a linear relationship. It is well known that highly trained and especially overtrained athletes have a higher risk of certain diseases due to their training load and additional stress.
A healthy diet and adequate sleep are also critical to having your immune system functioning properly. A lack of essential vitamins and minerals as well as carbohydrate have been linked to poor immune function.
Besides these lifestyle factors you simply can’t go past washing your hands as a preventative measure for the common cold. You should wash your hands regularly throughout the day, particularly when you have come into contact with high usage areas: bathrooms, bars, cafes, public transport, office desks, pens, people, technology (you don’t want to know what has been found living on iPhones!) and anywhere else humans often put their hands.
For treatment of the common cold please don’t ask your GP for antibiotics. Rhinovirus is a virus and antibiotics will not cure a virus. Your GP will give you appropriate advice but you might like to try vitamin C, zinc and echinacea to decrease symptoms of the cold and potentially decrease the length of the cold. Please note, that these supplements are not necessary on a regular basis if you have a healthy diet. You’ve heard me say this before – 5 serves of vegetables and 2 serves of fruit per day. You can also try moderate exercise and rest to help alleviate symptoms and boost your immune system.
The most important thing when you have a cold is to limit the spread, particularly to those with weaker immune symptoms. Try and cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough with your elbow, rather than your hand and ALWAYS wash your hands. This may just stop you from spreading the virus to your friends, family, work colleagues. You might also want to reconsider a visit to friends and family who are elderly, newborn or have compromised immune function.
Of course, the ultimate question to ask your trainer is: “can I exercise with a cold?” The short answer is: “yes”. Make sure you moderate your workout. This may mean doing 90% of what you normally do or perhaps just a light walk or bike ride. The bottom line is that generally speaking complete rest will not help you get over a cold faster but moderate or mild exercise can boost your immune system and might just help you recover faster as well as the numerous other benefits of exercise for your body.
*please note this is generic advice only. Please visit your GP for specific advice
**This advice is for the common cold (rhinovirus) and is not applicable to influenza or other viruses.