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How to avoid (and find relief from) the common cold

Woman blowing her nose

It’s been one cold after another for me in recent months, in spite of my best efforts to avoid it. I wash my hands. I Lysol wipe my home and my desk. I try my best not to touch elevator buttons or the subway handles. Yet, the germs seem to prevail.

As I go through yet another box of tissues, I thought I’d reach out to Dr. Lisa Del Giudice, family doctor at Sunnybrook, to check if I’m just unlucky on the germ front this year, or something else is wrong with me. (Learn about the difference between colds and the flu)

“First off, nothing is wrong with you,” she assured me. “Some years, there seem to be more viruses going around. Sometimes our exposure to these cold viruses go up due our environment — our kids bring them home from school or daycare, our jobs in healthcare or education put us in close proximity to lots of viruses, or we just need to be out and about in public places. Often times we get re-exposed just as we are getting over one cold when our immunity is down from trying to fight the first cold.”

That sounds familiar. And makes sense. But why do some people (ie. me) catch more colds than others (ie. my husband)? Dr. Del Giudice says there’s a number of factors.

“Some people just don’t have the same exposures – no visits with young kids, they don’t ride public transit, they avoid other people with colds,” she said. “Some people have built up a good immune system from previous colds. And, some people are very good at taking care of themselves when they feel a cold coming on: they stop and rest so things don’t escalate.”

Dr. Del Giudice says some people have a tendency to get longer or harsher colds, for example those who smoke or vape, and people with lung conditions like asthma, emphysema or chronic bronchitis.

To help avoid these nasty viruses, wash your hands. Wipe the grocery cart with the disinfectants at the entrance to the store. Open doors with your sleeve. Stay home. If you have to be around people, avoid physical contact (don’t shake hands, hug or kiss). Cough, sneeze and blow your nose away from people or objects people will touch. If you have to do these things around people, cough or sneeze into your sleeve. Wash your hands after.

“Try not to touch your face as your hands get dirty fast. Wash your face when you get home to get all those germs off,” Dr. Del Giudice said.

If possible, separate infected family members from the well family members – don’t share a bed if someone has a cold and you want to avoid it, Dr. Del Giudice added.

While most people don’t need to see their family doctor for a cold, you should see a doctor if you have a fever lasting more than five days, have trouble breathing, chest pain, or your symptoms worsen after seven to 10 day. Also, keep an eye on your snot.

“We expect to see discoloured mucous in the first five to seven days but if that worsens or changes from clear or white to dark yellow, orange, brown, green mucous on day six or seven, then you should see a doctor.”

Other reasons to see a doctor include coughing up blood or a post-viral cough lasting longer than four to six weeks.

“Older adults often don’t get measurable fevers so just checking their temperature may not be enough,” Dr. Del Giudice added. “Older adults with pneumonia might hallucinate, say or do odd things and get very weak. These patients should see a doctor.”

Dr. Del Giudice said while antibiotics won’t help the common cold, over-the-counter medications can help ease some of the symptoms that come with a cold, but they should be only used for a short time. Salt water nasal rinses can help get rid of mucous in the sinuses (always follow the instructions on the package).

And, don’t hesitate to put the kettle on.

“Warm water with lemon and honey is the safest and most natural thing to take to break down mucous that drips down from the sinuses and collects in the throat,” she said.

Dr. Del Giudice’s final pieces of advice:

“Rest and take care of yourself. We all have a tendency to push through our colds. Be patient, take it easy, and give it time. Get your flu shot to help avoid the respiratory flu. And if you smoke or vape, please consider quitting. I promise you will tolerate your colds better.”

About the author

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Alexis Dobranowski

Alexis Dobranowski is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

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