Everyone gets the common cold; hence, its name. Why isn’t there a cure or preventative vaccine?
Actually there is, and you have it already – an active lifestyle including regular physical activity.
David Nieman, DrPH, FACSM, the director of the Appalachian State University Human Performance Laboratory at the NC Research Campus, explains.
Don’t wait around for a vaccine to prevent the common cold
There are more than 200 viruses (half of them rhinoviruses) responsible for the common cold, which often strikes in the form of an upper respiratory tract infection (URTI), complete with coughing, sneezing, sore throat and runny nose. The sheer number of viruses capable of causing the common cold makes the creation of an effective vaccine or cure highly unlikely.
Nieman is renowned in the field of exercise immunology. He also studies the way polyphenols, the colorful chemicals in plants that confer a variety of health benefits, impact the body in the context of exercise. Instead of hoping for a vaccine or cure, he suggests a “comprehensive lifestyle approach.”
Stress management, regular sleep, healthy eating, high intake of fruit, and proper hygiene are all lifestyle factors that influence a person’s risk of contracting the common cold. The crucial factor is near-daily physical activity, which is shown in many studies to reduce an individual’s risk of URTI and, in some studies, to improve the immune response to the flu vaccine. “Of all the lifestyle habits, regular physical activity such as brisk walking has the most powerful effect in lowering your odds of illness with the common cold,” advises Dr. Nieman.
Nieman describes several studies providing evidence that support this claim, most which have shown that physically active people have a 40-50% lower number of illness days during the winter and fall seasons compared to sedentary people. In a 2011 British Journal of Sports Medicine study, while working with UNC Charlotte statisticians at the NCRC, Nieman showed that the number of days with the common cold during the 12-week study was reduced 43% in those reporting 5 or more days per week of aerobic exercise compared to those who were largely sedentary.
What’s happening in the immune system?
In a 2005 study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, Nieman showed that a 30-minute walk increased the recruitment and movement of key immune cells in the blood. Physical activity increases the recirculation of neutrophils and natural killer cells, he explained. These are two types of immune cells that respond first to infections, including the common cold. Everything goes back to normal in just a few hours after exercise, but continuous and frequent exercise followed by bouts of boosted immune cell circulation can reduce the risk of infection over time.
On average, adults catch a cold two to three times per year, but children often get sick up to eight times per year. Studies show that regular physical activity (like a daily brisk walk) is likely much more effective at preventing the common cold than medications and supplements that boast being able to ward off infections – and it’s free!