A scientist's guide to life: how to beat a cold © Tom Redfern

A scientist’s guide to life: how to beat a cold

The weather is chilly and there are plenty of bugs being passed around, so common cold expert Prof Ron Eccles reveals the best ways to tackle the sniffles.

I’m feeling dreadful. Where do I begin?

Our studies found that hot blackcurrant cordial is great at easing coughs and sore throats, but it can be any hot flavoured drink. Honey and lemon is good. The tastier the better as this helps to promote salivation and mucus secretion, which lubricates and soothes the throat.

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Should I add a little brandy to my hot lemon?

Alcohol in moderation is a sedative, so it can help you sleep and stop coughing. Don’t overdo it though because alcohol dilates the blood vessels in the nose and can make it become more blocked.

My mum swears by hot soup. Could she be on to something?

Soup is hot and tasty so that works well, but our research shows that sweet tastes are good because they help inhibit coughs. Bitter-tasting things don’t do that. Also, conventional shop-bought cold remedies can only be taken once every six hours or so, but you can have as much hot cordial or soup as you like.

What else should I take?

An analgesic, like paracetamol or ibuprofen, for the sore throat, aches and chills, and a nasal decongestant spray, to relieve the stuffiness. The nasal spray is great because it works within minutes and the effects last for eight hours, so it can take you right through the night.

Need to know…

  1. Enjoy lots of hot, tasty drinks and soups. They’ll soothe your throat.
  2. Painkillers and decongestant sprays are just as good as pricier all-in-one products.
  3. Treat yourself to something fun to take your mind off your symptoms.

Isn’t it easier to buy an over-the-counter remedy that contains all these ingredients?

It might be easier, but it will be more expensive and it won’t necessarily be better. The syrups and powders that you buy contain a different decongestant called phenylephrine, which is of questionable efficacy.

How about alternative therapies?

There’s some weak evidence that echinacea can help ease symptoms and shorten the duration of a cold. Similarly, there’s mild evidence in favour of using garlic, and mixed evidence for the use of oral zinc supplements.

What about vitamin C?

Vitamin C is good for you if you’re deficient in it, but most of us have normal levels. Instead, I recommend a vitamin D supplement. Vitamin D is important for immune system functioning. We can get it from sunshine, but during the winter months, we get a lot less.

Read more from A Scientist’s Guide to Life:

I still feel rubbish. What else can I do?

Treat yourself to a trip to the cinema or an evening out. If you dwell on your symptoms, you’ll only feel worse, but if you get out and distract yourself, your cold won’t feel so bad.

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What are the best preventative measures?

Maintain a good, balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. Exercise moderately, avoid stress, and make sure you get enough sleep. If all else fails, become a hermit and avoid all contact with human beings. If you do this you will never catch a cold!