When you’ve been taking precautions to stay healthy, the first sign of sniffles can come as a surprise. Vaccination, social distancing, hand washing and mask-wearing are all good ways to reduce the risk of getting ill. But despite your best efforts, you might come down with a cold.
Why is this cold so bad?
Some people are calling it ‘the worst cold ever’. For others, it feels like a ‘superflu’. There’s no doubt that lots of us are suffering right now. But why? Well, while we were avoiding COVID-19, we were also steering clear of the common cold. So, many of us have stayed infection-free for a while, and our memories of blocked noses and headaches have faded. When we’re caught off guard, a cold can seem like an especially nasty surprise.
Why do so many of us have a cold right now?
The common cold is common, and in the autumn each year, the cold and flu season takes off. Children are spending time together at school. Adults are returning to work and socialising indoors. So as we head into autumn, there are plenty of opportunities for infections to hop from person to person.
And we’ve had very low levels of colds and flu in the last year because we’ve been staying apart.3 We’d normally have been getting colds all through that time. But now we’re all getting sick at the same time.
Is it a cold or COVID-19?
Even if you’re fully vaccinated, you can still get COVID-19, though the risk is lower. The common cold and COVID-19 cause many similar symptoms, such as headache, sore throat, sneezing, runny nose and cough.1
It’s hard to tell what you’ve got from symptoms alone, though there are a few signs that definitely suggest COVID-19. So if you notice changes to your smell or taste, do a PCR test for COVID-19. You should also test if you have any sign of a fever or a cough.2
What about the flu?
Influenza (Flu) and COVID-19 are caused by different viruses. But the symptoms are similar. So if you have a fever, cough, or change to your smell or taste, get a PCR test to check for COVID-19.
If you haven’t had a flu jab yet, try to get one. It’s free for anyone over 50, or if you’re pregnant or have certain health conditions. Check the NHS flu vaccine page for more advice.
How can I recover faster?
- Rest: as inconvenient as it may be, it’s best to stay home and rest4
- Hydrate: Keep a water bottle by your bed or chair and drink plenty of water throughout the day4
- Stay warm: a warm soup can be soothing and help you stay hydrated4
- Use a humidifier: you might find that a humidifier helps keep your nose, throat and lips from getting dry and eases your symptoms5
A few of your favourite things can help you feel better. A cosy pillow and blanket can help you sleep better. Pass the time with an old movie. A warm shower can help you relax.
Help protect your loved ones
Keeping apart from family and friends can help prevent you from passing on your illness. Wash your hands often with warm water. Use tissues when you cough or sneeze and throw them away. Clean shared surfaces, paying extra attention to handles, light switches and handrails. 4
Plan ahead: make a care package
Even if you’re feeling well now, you can come down with a cold when you least expect it. Be prepared with health and comfort items on hand. Having the right supplies ready at home can save you a trip to the shops, so you can stay home in your pyjamas. Here are some ideas:
- Fever-reducing medicine such as paracetamol
- Soft tissues
- Saline nasal spray
- Lip balm
- Hand sanitiser
- Throat lozenges
- Electrolyte powder or drinks
Strategies for staying healthy
Chances are, you’ll get over your cold in a few days. To help avoid the next one, take good care of yourself. Regular exercise and a healthy diet help your immune system to work well. Getting at least 6 to 9 hours of sleep is important to protect your health.6 And it makes sense to reduce stress in your life if you can.7
When to get emergency care
Call 999 for an ambulance if you:
- Are struggling to breath
- Are coughing up blood
- Have blue lips or face
- Are cold and sweaty, with pale or blotchy skin
- Have a rash that doesn’t fade if you roll a glass over it
- Collapse or faint
- Are very confused or drowsy
- Have not peed for 12 hours (all day)
- Do I have COVID or the flu? How to tell the difference. ZOE Covid App. https://covid.joinzoe.com/post/covid-or-flu, published 11 October 2021
- Get tested for coronavirus (COVID-19). NHS. www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/testing/get-tested-for-coronavirus/, published 28 October 2021
- Annual flu reports.Gov.uk. www.gov.uk/government/statistics/annual-flu-reports, published 24 June 2021
- Common cold. NHS. www.nhs.uk/conditions/common-cold/ , published 24 February 2021
- Nasal Congestion. Patient. https://patient.info/ears-nose-throat-mouth/nasal-congestion, 16 March 2021
- Sleep and tiredness. NHS. www.nhs.uk/live-well/sleep-and-tiredness/, published 25 March 2021
- Chronic stress puts your health at risk. Mayo Clinic. www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037, published 8 July 2021