Why do I keep getting colds – and how can I prevent them?

Woman sneezing with cold on train. (Getty Images)
Other sniffling commuters could leave you battling a cold this autumn and winter. (Getty Images)

Maybe you've already been struck down by a cold this month...or you're still reeling from having back-to-back sniffles last year. But whether they tend to wipe you out or you've just learnt to put up with your symptoms, feeling under the weather is no one's idea of fun.

So, if you're someone who's 'cold-prone', here's what you need to know about avoiding the common virus this autumn and winter (and getting rid of one fast, if you're less lucky).

Read more: Differences between flu and COVID-19 symptoms ahead of so-called 'twindemic'

Why do I keep getting colds?

Often struggle with a sore throat, headache, cough and raised temperature? While you might already be cautiously disinfecting your desk and turning away from coughing commuters, it can still be difficult to avoid infection.

Even worse, cold and flu viruses can linger for up to 48 hours after being 'sneezed out' by a sufferer – so you can't even spot the culprit who's left their pesky germs everywhere.

“A flu virus particle is just one 10,000th of a millimetre across,” Dr Chris Smith, consultant virologist and head of The Naked Scientists at the University of Cambridge, told Yahoo UK.

“At this minuscule scale, the particles can readily bob about in the air, usually suspended inside small droplets of water coughed or sneezed out by an infected individual.

“That said, surfaces, such as door knobs, telephones, handrails and other people's hands themselves are also potential sources."

So, in nursery settings, for example, the toy box is a major culprit, which may explain why your kids keep bringing back unwanted bugs.

If 'caught' in fabric, i.e. a tissue, then cold and flu viruses survive for around eight hours, according to Dr Lisa Ackerley, chartered environmental health practitioner and spokesperson for Jakemans.

However, if the pathogen (that can produce disease) lands on a hard surface, it could stick around for up to two days.

“If you touch something in a public place it’s quite possible for someone to have deposited viruses onto the surface,” said Dr Ackerley.

Read more: Flu jab: Who's eligible for the NHS vaccine rollout and how to book

Woman with kid in supermarket trolley food shopping. (Getty Images)
Supermarket trolleys are one of the top places cold and flu viruses linger. (Getty Images)

Where am I picking up colds and how can I prevent them?

Public transport

As if gloomy mornings weren't off-putting enough, sharing a train with spluttering passengers can make commuting to work even tougher.

“You can pick up all sorts on your hands as you travel in; colds, flu, norovirus,” said Dr Ackerley.

This is exactly why the germaphobes among us are reluctant to to hold on to rails on buses, tubes or trams.

Dr Ackerley reassured, however, the sniffles don’t have to be inevitable.

“Germs that are just on your hands won’t make you ill as there is no transfer into the body,” she explained.

“If the virus is on your finger and then you rub your eye, or put your finger up [your] nose, that’s a route of infection.

“Assume your hands are ‘dirty’, and wash them with soap and warm water when you get to the office.”

So, to stay fighting fit, it really can be as a simple as a regular, thorough hand-washing technique.

“The rubbing action dislodges the microbes from your hands, down the plughole,” added Dr Ackerley.

“Do it for 20 seconds; sing happy birthday twice in your head.”

This might sound silly, but it's the official advice from the NHS (and you might remember the guidance used to help people prevent catching COVID-19).

And, even if there is a queue for the hand dryer, Dr Ackerley stressed it is “one extra process of preventing transmission”.

“Wet hands can transfer viruses more effectively than dry hands,” she explained.

Read more: Do tea and coffee count towards daily water intake? How to stay hydrated in winter

Supermarket trolley

With thousands flocking to the shops every day, it's easy to come into contact with a virus while doing your weekly shop.

“Children may have been sitting in a trolley; there could be snot all over the place!” Dr Ackerley said candidly.

To stay fit and well, the medic recommends scrubbing your hands as soon as you get home.

“People often load the shopping in the car, arrive home hungry and open a bag of crisps, not realising their hands are dirty,” she said.

And when in the comfort of our own vehicle, it's easy to become complacent.

“When we’re in a car, we’re in our own bubble and may rub our eyes as we drive along,” Dr Ackerley pointed out.

So, again, just like with preventing Covid, you might want to arm yourself with some sanitiser to keep those hands clean.

Mobile phone

While we're all reliant on our phones, constantly scrolling, we may not appreciate that the hard surface is no different and can also be home to viruses for up to 48 hours.

“If your hand is dirty, you might then touch your phone and forget about it,” said Dr Ackerley.

“You may then wash your hands, before touching your phone again, ‘reinfecting’ yourself.”

Mobiles are unlikely to be a major source of contamination, as we tend not to pass our phone around – apart from perhaps to our own children – but you'll want to make sure you aren't putting yourself at risk without realising.

People using phones on tube platform. (Getty Images)
Don't forget to clean your phone, as well as your hands. (Getty Images)

Computer keyboards

Modern offices often encourage workers to 'hot desk' to reduce clutter, engage with colleagues and boost efficiency, but moving from desk-to-desk could leave an entire team sneezing.

“If you hot desk and spray your germs all over the place, every surface in that zone will be contaminated," Dr Ackerley warned.

To protect yourself, consider starting the day by disinfecting your desk with an antiviral product. Since the pandemic, the etiquette of going into the office when unwell has changed as many of us are more cautious about spreading germs. Plus, offices are usually kept extra-clean these days.

Read more: Vitamin D supplements: When and why you should take them

Lift buttons

While it may seem extreme, think how many colleagues ride in that same lift every day, spreading their germs as they go.

“There is a lot to be said for being careful,” said Dr Ackerley. “If you know you fidget, try to wash your hands after touching things others have touched.

“Make sure your hands are clean before eating lunch or touching your face.”

The NHS also advises preventing catching a cold by washing your hands with warm water and soap; not sharing towels or household items with someone who has one; not touching your eyes or nose to avoid infection; and generally staying fit and healthy.

While, in fact, some germs are good for us as they can help to boost immunity, hopefully these expert-approved tips will help you stay a little more cold-free in the coming months.

How to get rid of a cold

Man with a cold drinking water. (Getty Images)
When it comes to treating a cold, simple methods are most effective. (Getty Images)

While you might not be able to get rid of a cold instantaneously with one single trick, there are ways to help you recover far more quickly.

Rather than ignoring your symptoms and ploughing on, giving yourself the care you need when you need it, if possible, can make the world of difference.

Try extra hard to prioritise getting enough rest and sleep (something we should be doing anyway), drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration (fruit juice or squash mixed with water is okay, but be mindful of sugar contents), and gargle salt water to sooth a sore throat (not for children), the NHS advises.

Generally, we should be drinking six-eight glasses of fluid a day, and being ill calls for some good old reliable honey and lemon added to warm water.

A pharmacist can also help with advice on the best cold medicines to take. For example, you're probably aware you can ease aches or lower temperature with paracetamol or ibuprofen or relieve a blocked nose with decongestant sprays or tablets (not for those under six).

While things like vitamin C, echinacea and garlic are thought to speed up recovery (and it can't hurt to try) there's actually little evidence to prove they do. Instead, commit to the above simple methods, and you should start to feel better in no time.

It's also important to note that as cough and cold medicines contain paracetamol and ibuprofen, avoid using them at the same time as the painkillers. Plus, you might want to steer clear of them entirely, as there's also a lack of evidence things like cough syrup actually work.

If you have a high temperature or don't feel well enough to do normal activities, try and stay home and avoid contact with other people until you feel better.

See a GP if your symptoms haven't improved after three weeks, suddenly get worse, your temperature is very high or you feel hot and shivery, you're concerned about your child's symptoms, you're short of breath or have chest pain, you have a long-term medical condition, or a weakened immune system.

Watch: Three ways to prevent colds from spreading at home