The Common Cold: What’s The Latest On Preventing And Treating It?

There’s no two ways about it: having a cold sucks. A lot of the time, it’s expected that we’ll simply power through it – but a stuffy nose, aches in places you didn’t know could ache, and fatigue can be a lot to contend with. But does science have a way we can avoid the lurgy? And if not, does it have any answers for how to feel better?

What is the common cold?

The common cold is the result of viruses infecting the upper respiratory tract, which includes the sinuses, nose, throat, and windpipe. And yes, that’s viruses, plural – a multitude of different viruses can cause the common cold, ranging from coronaviruses (not that one though) to the most frequent causative agent, rhinoviruses.

A lot of the symptoms that we feel, such as a sore throat, sneezing, and coughing, are often the result of the body’s immune response to these viruses invading. Whilst that might seem like a bit of a kick in the teeth given how crummy it makes us feel, it does mean the immune system is doing its job, though occasionally people can wind up with secondary infections.


How to prevent it

The variety of viruses that can cause a cold has hindered the development of a vaccine or cure, but is there anything else that can be done to prevent it? 

According to a whole host of healthcare providers, backed up by research, there are some fairly simple ways to try and avoid catching a cold that many people will be familiar with. These include washing your hands with warm water and soap, not touching your face (eyes and nose in particular) with unwashed hands, and staying fit and healthy.

Researchers have, however, been exploring some of the factors that might put someone at higher risk of catching a cold, which points to some potential new targets for prevention. One such study relates to the plethora of folklore suggesting that the cold makes you more likely to catch, well, a cold.

There does tend to be a peak in colds during the winter months, but this has historically been put down to more people being indoors and closer together. But researchers from Northeastern University have also found there might at least be something to the urban legends, with their study revealing that the immune response in the nasal cavity is dampened in colder temperatures.

Under normal conditions, tiny sacs called extracellular vesicles bind to viruses entering the nose and suspend them in the mucus, but fewer of these turn up when it’s cold. This has therapeutic potential, according to study co-lead Mansoor Amiji.

“Can you create artificial virus sponges – a decoy cell – that the virus can bind to? And now you have an antiviral compound that destroys it before it infects the actual cell,” the researcher said in a statement. Unfortunately, this approach isn’t available to stem your streaming nostrils just yet.

How to treat it

Even with simple prevention techniques, sometimes a cold will slip through the cracks. So what’s the best way to deal with it when you do get one? 

As with preventative methods, there are a lot of popular supposed treatments or so-called “miracle” cures. While commonplace, many of these have conflicting or insufficient scientific evidence to back them up, such as garlic, echinacea, and zinc supplements. Antibiotics won’t work either, as they target bacteria, not viruses – taking them inappropriately can contribute to antibiotic resistance.

In that vein, there’s a well-known saying: “Feed a cold, starve a fever”. While a small study published in 2002 suggested eating could positively affect the adaptive immune system, this is by no means substantial evidence, and there’s little else to say that eating plenty of food will magically cure you. 

But depending on the water content of what you’re eating, it might at least make you feel a bit better. “Both fevers and colds can cause dehydration,” according to Dr Rachel Dawkins from Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.

In that case, something like a nice lemon and ginger tea or a bowl of chicken soup (other soups are available) could help rehydrate you and give you a decent nutrient hit to boot.


Overall though, the advice is probably what you’ll know already: get plenty of rest and drink up. Pain relievers such as paracetamol might help with aches, while decongestants could give a helping hand with that stuffy nose. Oh, and find something fun to watch to entertain you whilst you ride it out.

All “explainer” articles are confirmed by fact checkers to be correct at time of publishing. Text, images, and links may be edited, removed, or added to at a later date to keep information current. 

The content of this article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of qualified health providers with questions you may have regarding medical conditions.

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