The throat scratches, the nose runny and we have to cough again – it’s time for a cold. Dangers of infection lurk everywhere and actually you can’t really protect yourself, right? Privatdozent Dr. Kai Michael Beeh answered. He heads the “Institute for Respiratory Research” in Wiesbaden and also explains to us which preventive measures are of no use and why some people get sick so often.
Marians Welt: Where am I most likely to get infected with the cold virus?
Dr. Beeh: Shaking hands is a high-level source of infection, this also applies to surfaces such as doorknobs, tablets or keyboards. But household items can also transmit viruses. Escalator handles are also typically contaminated with all sorts of clutter.
So always nicely disinfect the surfaces?
Dr. Beeh: Yes, always clean surfaces, that really helps!
Explain to the layperson: What happens in the body when a cold virus has penetrated?
Dr. Beeh: The virus infects the outer cells of our mucous membranes, i.e. in the nose but also in the throat and, if it goes deeper, in the bronchi. The top layer of these cells becomes infected by the virus. As it multiplies, it destroys these cells and that then triggers an immune response.
That is, the subordinate cells call certain immune cells and these kill the infected cells. Then there are the typical symptoms of inflammation: swelling, pain, redness, runny nose. This is basically a result, not just of the viral infection itself, but of our immune system’s response to that infection.
The virus multiplies in the cells as long as it can, then at some point the immune system comes along and basically clears this top layer of cells away. This is then regenerated and the virus multiplication is over. In the meantime it has already settled on someone else.
Effective home remedies and medication for respiratory infections
Winter time is flu time. There are many home remedies, and there are many more medications – but which of them really helps and which cure does more harm than good?
Can you explain the difference between a cold and the flu?
Dr. Beeh: Cold viruses are different from flu viruses. Influenza is caused by the influenza viruses, which usually cause severe symptoms, although most cases of flu are milder, but if someone has severe symptoms such as a fever it is usually the flu.
Flu typically doesn’t necessarily lead to a runny nose either. This is always a good sign of identification, if you don’t have a cold, it’s likely the flu. Cold viruses mainly affect the nose.
The patients then feel really ill, have a high fever and, unlike the common cold, influenza is more prone to complications. The worst consequence is pneumonia. This can then be life-threatening.
In your opinion, is it worth getting a flu vaccination?
Dr. Beeh: It’s actually worth it for everyone, you have to honestly say. Our recommendations say that people over 60 should always be vaccinated because the complication rate is simply higher. In general, we not only vaccinate as individual protection, but the more people in the population are vaccinated, the worse the virus can spread. This is herd protection, the more people get vaccinated, the less likely it is to have real outbreaks like last year in winter, when we had almost ten million visits to the doctor for flu.
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How can you avoid catching a cold? Is that even possible?
Dr. Beeh: You cannot protect yourself 100 percent, but there are a few things that are effective to reduce the personal risk somewhat. One of the most important measures in the winter months are hygiene measures, i.e. regular hand washing, because the majority of infections in diseases are transmitted through hand contact. In this respect, it helps if you wash your hands regularly.
Is there a right way to wash my hands?
Dr. Beeh: It doesn’t necessarily have to be with alcohol or disinfectant, just normal washing with soap and water is sufficient.
What else can help to prevent infection?
Dr. Beeh: Sunlight is quite neat because you need vitamin D for your immune system.
Vitamin C also appears to have some preventive power in people who do a lot of physical exercise and who exercise a lot, but only in people who are active. For the “normal mortal”, vitamin C actually has no preventive effect. It is often included in treatment products, but there is no evidence that vitamin C is of any benefit.
It has also been proven that regular saunas strengthen the immune system and reduce the frequency of colds over the winter months.
Positive thinking, which is evidence-based, also helps. Because positive-thinking people get colds less often in the winter months than people who run grumpy through the world!
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What really helps when you’ve caught a cold, what can you do?
Dr. Beeh: One should take care of oneself physically, give the body time to regenerate itself. If you start treating a cold early, for example with over-the-counter herbal medicines, you can alleviate the symptoms of the disease and, in some cases, shorten the course of the disease.
When do you have real power again, i.e. when are you considered healthy again, can you go back to work or do sports?
Dr. Beeh: There is the old saying: “It comes three days, it is there three days and it goes three days, the cold.” So, by and large, a cold lasts a week, but that varies from person to person. There are mild progressions, you are fit again after four days and sometimes you are only fit again after seven or ten days.
But it should be over after seven to ten days and when you feel physically healthy and the symptoms have subsided, then you are fit again. There is nothing wrong with putting the last bit of mucus in your nose to the test.
Why are some people more prone to colds than others?
Dr. Beeh: These are certain hereditary factors. Viruses need a “key” to penetrate cells. This “lock” is not the same for everyone. There are very small variations in the molecular structure, just like there are blond people, just as there are red-haired people. There are people whose docking molecules can be perceived better or worse by viruses. This is the reason why some people have colds less often than others.
There are also illnesses that favor a cold. If someone has an allergy and the nose is inflamed for most of the year anyway, then the inflamed mucous membrane is also more likely to get an infection. When I smoke, my airways are chronically damaged and the barrier function is impaired. That’s why a smoker gets a respiratory infection more often, or an asthmatic with chronic inflammation of the bronchial tubes gets a respiratory infection more easily.
Which common cold myths have you always wanted to dispel with?
Dr. Beeh: Well the classic, colds do not come from cold, I would say that colds do come from cold. Of course it’s a viral infection, but there is a very strong dominance of the disease in the cold season and there are reasons for that. The cold viruses can multiply better in the cold, poor circulation or colder mucous membranes than is the case in the warm season.
You should definitely sneeze into your sleeve and not into your hand. I get into the crisis when my daughter sneezes up her sleeve, but unfortunately she beats me here with the scientific evidence. In fact, even if it’s gross and awful, it’s better than sneezing into your hand. Because with the hand you then transfer the virus to the next.
And another case: a cold lasts seven days without a doctor and a week – that’s not entirely true either. With supportive treatment you can shorten the time you get sick with a cold, not dramatically, but you can!