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6 min read

How can I prevent a cold or flu?

Medical reviewer: Dr Ann Nainan
Last reviewed: 04/12/2020
Medically reviewed

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If you’re worried about catching a cold or coming down with flu this winter, there are things you can do to help reduce your risk.

How to prevent flu

The flu vaccine can prevent you from catching flu. The vaccine is more effective if you get it before the flu season starts, which is typically December to March.

Taking antiviral medication can also help prevent flu, although doctors don’t give antiviral medicines to most people with flu. They can be used if you may not respond to the vaccine, if you’ve had the vaccine in the last 2 weeks or if there’s an outbreak.

Apart from that, the best way to protect yourself from colds and flu is to have a healthy lifestyle.

How to prevent a cold

There’s no vaccine for colds so try to stay healthy and fit as this can help you avoid getting a cold.

This means eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise and drinking plenty of warm drinks in the winter months.

Lifestyle habits to help prevent cold and flu

Wash your hands regularly

Cold and flu viruses can be passed through tiny droplets of mucus that are sneezed or coughed out into the air by an infected person, and breathed in by another person.

If an infected person sneezes into their hand, and then touches an object (such as a doorknob, or railing on a train) the virus can pass from the object to the next person who touches it.

By washing your hands, you’ll be getting rid of any viruses you've picked up on them.

Avoid touching your nose and eyes

Cold and flu viruses can enter your body through the eyes and nose. If you have any infected droplets on your hands, and you touch your eyes or nose, you can pass the virus into your system.

By not touching your nose and eyes, you'll reduce your chances of catching a virus.

Clean surfaces regularly

If you live with other people and someone has a cold, clean shared surfaces regularly with a disinfectant as this may help to lower the risk of cold viruses spreading.

Don’t share household goods

If you share your home with others, don’t share towels or other equipment like glasses or cutlery with someone if they have a cold.

Natural remedies for cold and flu

Many people believe vitamin C can cure flu and echinacea can prevent colds. But is there scientific evidence to back this up? Here’s what the evidence says.

There’s limited evidence that vitamin C helps to prevent colds.

Studies into vitamin C and the common cold found that regularly taking vitamin C had “no effect on common cold incidence in the population."

However, vitamin C might help to prevent colds in people exposed to short periods of intense physical activity, such as marathon runners or skiers, but not in the general population.

Studies also suggest that a daily and extra dose of vitamin C may slightly reduce the length and severity of colds.

Can vitamin C prevent flu?

When it comes to flu, 1 in 3 people believe that taking vitamin C can cure the flu virus. It can’t.

Does echinacea reduce your risk of catching a cold?

The root, seeds and other parts of echinacea plants are used in herbal remedies that many people believe protect them against colds. There have been several studies into echinacea’s effect, but no firm conclusions.

Some studies show that echinacea may lower your risk of getting a cold a little, but there’s no evidence it can help clear symptoms of a cold more quickly.

Echinacea should not be given to children under 12 years old.

Will zinc help prevent a cold?

There’s some evidence that taking zinc (in lozenges, tablets or syrup) may reduce how long a cold lasts.

Studies into zinc and the common cold suggest that taking zinc supplements within 24 hours of the symptoms starting will speed up recovery from a cold and reduce the severity of symptoms in healthy people.

Long-term use of zinc isn't recommended as it could cause side effects such as feeling sick (nausea) and a bad taste in the mouth. More research is required to find out the recommended dose.

Does getting cold or wet cause colds?

The only thing that can cause a cold or flu is a cold or flu virus.

Getting cold or wet won’t give you a cold. However, if you’re already carrying the virus in your nose, it might encourage the symptoms to develop.

One study found that people who chilled their feet in cold water for 20 minutes were twice as likely to develop a cold as those who didn't chill their feet.

The authors suggest this is because some people carry cold viruses without having symptoms. Getting chilled causes blood vessels in the nose to narrow, affecting the defences in the nose and making it easier for virus particles to multiply.

Key points

  • the flu vaccine can help reduce your risk of catching flu
  • there’s no vaccine for colds. Staying healthy and fit is the only way to help you avoid getting a cold
  • to help prevent cold and flu you should wash your hands regularly, clean surfaces regularly and don’t share household items with someone who has flu or a cold
  • there’s little evidence that natural remedies, such as vitamin c and echinacea, can help prevent cold or flu

References

  1. Flu [Internet]. nhs.uk. 2020 [cited 6 October 2020]. Available here.
  2. Common Cold - Infectious Diseases - MSD Manual Professional Edition [Internet]. MSD Manual Professional Edition. 2020 [cited 6 October 2020]. Available here.
  3. Common cold [Internet]. nhs.uk. 2020 [cited 6 October 2020]. Available here.
  4. Influenza - Infectious Diseases - MSD Manual Professional Edition [Internet]. MSD Manual Professional Edition. 2020 [cited 6 October 2020]. Available here.
  5. Common cold [Internet]. nhs.uk. 2020 [cited 6 October 2020]. Available here.
  6. Echinacea [Internet]. Nccih.nih.gov. 2020 [cited 6 October 2020]. Available here.
  7. Gómez E, Quidel S, Bravo Soto G, Ortigoza Á. Does vitamin C prevent the common cold?. 2020. Available here.
  8. The common cold in adults. UpToDate [Internet]. Uptodate.com. 2020 [cited 6 October 2020]. Available here.
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