The 5 worst things you can do when you have a cold


Most of us catch two or three colds a year, so you’d think we’d know just what to do when they hit.

Think again. Much of what we’ve been trained to do when we have a cold is downright wrong. We end up spreading the virus around to everyone else, prolonging our symptoms – and setting ourselves up to catch the next cold that comes along.

As your throat starts aching and your nose starts running this season, here are five things you most definitely should not do:

1. DON’T Cover your mouth with your hand when you cough or sneeze

Polite, maybe, but you’re depositing germs straight into your hands – then transfer them to whatever you touch.

While others may breathe in airborne viruses in the tiny droplets expelled in a cloud when someone coughs or sneezes, the droplets quickly fall to the ground and dry, says Chris Burrell, Emeritus Professor of Virology at the University of Adelaide.

However, the labile cold virus lives much longer in moist mucus – the stuff that ends up on your hands when you sneeze into them. Studies in hospitals have shown that people who sat all day by a sick person’s bed were less likely to catch a virus than the person who visited for a short time but touched the surrounds. Rhinoviruses, one of the most common types of cold virus, can live up to three hours on the skin or on objects such as telephones and computer keyboards – so your hands are the real culprits.

DO The right way:

  • Sneeze and cough into your arm, or into a tissue, which you should then throw away.
  • Wash your hands every time you sneeze or cough into them, and get the whole family to wash their hands regularly all through winter.
  • Rub your eyes with your knuckles – they’re less likely to have picked up someone else’s germs than your fingertips. Better still, try not to touch your face with your hands unless you wash them first.


2. DON’T Wrap up warm

In most parts of Australia, colds and flu are definitely part and parcel of winter, but not necessarily because it’s cold. In one study conducted in Salisbury in England, volunteers either rugged up and kept warm while they inhaled a dose of rhinovirus, or sat outside with their feet in a tub of icy water. The rate of infection was much the same in both groups.

We get more colds in winter because we’re more likely to be inside, sharing air with infected people. Children who run around in the sun are much less likely to be touching each other and exchanging viruses than they are when cramped inside a school room while it’s wet and cold outside.

There’s also evidence that unflued heaters can exacerbate respiratory problems, as can breathing mould in poorly ventilated rooms.

DO The right way:

  • Leave the windows open a crack – you need fresh, circulating air to chase out germs.
  • Don’t wind up the heater too high. It’s important not to dry out the mucous membranes in your nose, mouth and eyes, which all provide the first line of defence against viruses.
  • Remove mould and mildew, which can cause breathing illnesses in some people.

3. DON’T Rush to your doctor

It’s one of our most common mistakes – hurrying to the doctor to demand antibiotics at the first sign of a cold.

Not only is overuse of antibiotics causing bugs to become resistant to them, but they just don’t work to treat a cold. Antibiotics target bacterial infections, not viruses. What’s more, antibiotics kill off good bacteria, which we need to keep our immune system functioning well.

In fact, a study published last year in Family Medicine found it was the doctor’s empathy, rather than the medication dispensed, that was more important in speeding recovery.

Even if your mucus is thick and yellow after a week, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have an infection that needs medicating. It’s just your body expelling dead cells.

DO The right way:

  • The best way to manage symptoms is with rest, nasal decongestants and paracetamol or aspirin.
  • Visit your doctor if you suspect after a week there’s infection in your chest, sinuses or middle ear.
  • If you do end up taking antibiotics, consider supplementing the course with probiotics, to boost the good bacteria in your gut and bolster your defence against catching the next virus.

4. DON’T Starve a cold and feed a fever

This may have been the conventional wisdom of our parents, but here’s news: you never need to starve yourself.

It’s important when you’re sick to mollycoddle yourself by getting lots of sleep and eating a normal diet. Good nutrition is what will keep your body functioning properly and boost your immune system.

What’s more, it’s essential to keep up your fluid intake when you have a cold, as you lose a lot of liquid if you have a temperature or are expelling mucus by coughing and sneezing. If you starve yourself, you may not be getting enough of the fluids you need at this time.

DO The right way:

  • Eat a normal diet, drink lots of fluids (water is best).
  • Stock up on fresh fruit and vegetables that are in season. Nature is very clever at providing us with certain nutrients when we need them most.
  • Eat great cold-busting foods high in antioxidants such as betacarotene and vitamins C and E – all found in fruit and vegetables.

5. DON’T Soldier on

There are plenty of medications out there designed to help us get through the day. But is that always the best policy when you have a cold?

Pam Stone, director of education at Blackmores, points out that, more often than not, over-the-counter cold and flu medications suppress symptoms but don’t cure the cold itself. You might feel like you can soldier on, but in reality your immune system is in overdrive and needs rest. “Taking these medications can be counterproductive,” she says.

What’s more, stress and lack of sleep have been shown in numerous studies to compromise the immune system. So carrying on at work or school will not just mean you spread your illness to everyone else – it will also mean you could take longer to recover.

DO The right way:

  • If possible, stay home for the first three days of a cold, when you’re at your most infectious.
  • Take it easy, but keep up your exercise routine. It boosts immunity.
  • Look after yourself – don’t smoke or drink alcohol, make sure you eat well and get lots of sleep. Any extra stress at this time will weaken your immune system further