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4 min read

5 facts about colds

Medical reviewer: Healthily's medical team
Last reviewed: 27/11/2020
Medically reviewed

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Note: If you have a new or ongoing cough, a high temperature (fever) or you've noticed a change in your sense of smell or taste, you may have coronavirus (COVID-19). Read more about coronavirus or use our Coronavirus Risk Assessment to check your risk.

Here are 5 surprising facts about colds, including what causes symptoms such as a blocked nose, and why mucus turns thick and yellow.

  1. Cold viruses don't make us feel ill

"It's your own immune response that makes you feel ill," says Professor Ron Eccles, founder of the Common Cold Centre.

When you get a cold, the virus attacks the nose and the back of the throat, and it doesn't take long for the body's natural defences to start to work.

"The immune system detects the virus and floods the area with white blood cells and chemical messengers, and these trigger various symptoms such as headaches and a blocked nose."

  1. A blocked nose is due to swollen erectile tissue

"During a cold, the lining of your nose is the battlefront," says Professor Eccles. When your nose feels blocked, it isn't because it's full of mucus, but because the blood vessels in your nose are inflamed.

The nasal lining is made from erectile tissue (similar to the tissue in the sexual organs). When you have a cold, the blood vessels swell up as infection-fighting white blood cells flood to the area. This narrows the air passage in your nose and restricts the airflow as you breathe.

A medicine that helps relieve symptoms of a blocked nose (decongestant spray) can reduce the swelling and allow you to breathe more easily.

  1. You can catch a cold through your eyes

When an infected person coughs or sneezes, they release droplets of mucus into the air, or into their hand if they use their hand to cover their mouth.

If you get these droplets on your hand (for example, by shaking hands or touching contaminated objects such as doorknobs), you can pass them into your eyes or nose when you touch them.

Most of us touch our eyes and nose more often than we realise. A tube (duct) links the eyes and the inside of the nose (nasal cavity), and the virus travels easily from the eye to the nose and throat, where it can cause infection.

You can reduce your risk of being infected by washing your hands thoroughly.

  1. Adults get fewer colds than children

Children get around 5 to 8 colds a year, compared with 2 to 3 for adults. So people who spend a lot of time with children, such as childminders, nursery teachers or school teachers, are also more likely to pick up the viruses.

  1. Yellow mucus is caused by white blood cells

When your immune system is fighting a cold virus, one of the first symptoms is clear, runny mucus from the nose.

As the cold develops, mucus usually becomes thicker and yellow, then green. White blood cells cause this change in colour and texture as they flood to the nose (nasal) area and increase in number as the cold progresses.

"Many people think that yellow or green mucus is caused by bacteria, but this isn't the case," says Professor Eccles. "It's because there are billions of white blood cells in the mucus."

Key points

  • cold viruses don't make you feel ill - it’s your own immune response that makes you feel ill
  • a blocked nose is due to swollen erectile tissue and inflamed blood vessels
  • you can catch a cold through your eyes
  • adults get fewer colds than children
  • yellow mucus is caused by white blood cells
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