- - Does the Cold Give You a Cold?

Does the Cold Give You a Cold?

illustrations by Rob Milton

It’s freezing out there, you’ll catch your death!’ Granny used to say as you set out on your bike. But was she right?

article by Michael Donlevy

The clue is in the name, you would think. The common cold attacks us when we are cold, because it’s cold, right?

Not quite. ‘There are more than 200 viruses that can cause an infection that leads to a cold, and they are mainly coronaviruses or rhinoviruses,’ says Andrew Soppitt, a consultant in anaesthesia and intensive care medicine who knows a thing or two about viruses and is also a keen cyclist. ‘The outside temperature has no direct bearing on infection, and in fact acute exposure to cold may make you less susceptible thanks to the secretion of noradrenaline, which acts as a decongestant. However, returning indoors from the cold may lead to a vasodilation of blood vessels in the nose, nasal congestion and an increased chance of catching a cold.’

The germs are spread by those nastiest of things: people. ‘Transmission is via air droplets – sneezing – as well as touching contaminated objects or close proximity to an infected person,’ says GP Dr Ian Campbell. ‘Colds are more common in winter because we spend more time in enclosed spaces mixing with others who have the virus, so being out on your bike is potentially one of the safest places to be.’

To make the distinction, influenza is also more common in winter, but for reasons to do with temperature and humidity. The virus is extremely stable in colder temperatures, but becomes less stable the warmer you go. Above 29°C the virus isn’t transmitted at all. It’s a similar story with humidity – in humid conditions, the water droplets in the air that transmit flu become heavier, and are more likely to land on the floor than on you.

Contact with other humans is the common denominator, so the active cyclist who’s not afraid of winter riding could actually reduce their chances of catching a cold or flu by heading out on their own. And there’s another upside.

‘All the evidence points towards regular physical activity helping to reduce the risk of colds and infections,’ says Campbell. ‘Our immunity is increased by being physically active. Extreme exercise – more than 15 hours a week – can make our immunity worse, but riding a bike doesn’t increase risk per se.’

Down with the pros

Last month we looked at the factors that make pro riders better at cycling than the rest of us, and you may be pleased to know that, largely, immunity from illness isn’t one of them. ‘The pros are humans like everyone else,’ says ABCC senior coach Ian Goodhew. ‘They travel and room together so there’s always potential for bacteria to spread. Colds are passed from person to person and that’s life – we all get them. The difference for the pros is that in the next room in the hotel is a doctor. They’re managed 24/7 by experts. We’re not.’


There are exceptions. ‘Some pros are constitutionally strong,’ he adds. ‘Stephen Roche and Sean Kelly were very different. I remember once Roche was bitten by a bug and swelled up the next day, and the doctor said, “The bug wouldn’t have dared bite Kelly.” That’s just luck – if someone is constitutionally strong they seem to avoid colds and other medical problems.’

And those exceptions exist among all of us. ‘I never got ill until I had a viral infection,’ Goodhew says. ‘I kept riding, getting ill, riding, getting ill, and after 18 months of this I had to rest, but my immune system was never the same again. You see age groupers racing and they’ve probably never been ill. The rest of us aged 50 or 60 who still ride purely for pleasure will have had some sort of medical problem at one point or other.’

There are some simple methods that everyone can follow to avoid germs. ‘Steer clear of crowded places, avoid people who have a cold and wash your hands before drinking, eating or touching an infected person or object such as workplace equipment,’ says Campbell. Then there are some tips specifically for cyclists: ‘Don’t wear face masks. They only work for around 20 minutes and make you look stupid.’

‘Be careful with drinks bottles,’ adds Goodhew. ‘Ideally you want something sterile in your mouth and they’re not. Don’t use the same bottle all year round because it will end up full of bacteria.’

Once you do catch a cold, there’s not a lot you can do about it. ‘It has to get rid of itself,’ says Campbell. ‘Your body’s immune system will deal with it over a few days. Drink plenty of fluids and use paracetemol or ibuprofen to reduce temperature or aches and pains.’

There are other things you can try, but these ease the symptoms rather than cure the cold. ‘Inhaling steam may help,’ says Soppitt. ‘Some people swear by echinacea. Studies are conflicting but at best it may shorten duration by a day.’

So should you train through a cold or not? ‘As a simple guide, if symptoms are above the neck, you can exercise,’ says Campbell. ‘If they’re below – breathlessness, cough or chest pains – it’s best to avoid strenuous exercise.’

Take to your bed

Goodhew isn’t so sure you should train at all: ‘All you do is prolong the illness or make it worse, and you’re not training properly anyway. Your body uses energy to recover from illness and that leaves you less for training. You might think, “I’ll take it easy,” or “I’ll ride at the back in this race,” but you won’t. So stop and get rid of it. If you carry on riding you’ll prolong it for a week and need another week to recover.’

The best way to gauge your recovery from a cold is with your heart rate. ‘Don’t train until it’s within 10% of normal,’ says Goodhew. ‘If your resting heart rate is 50 and it’s gone up to 57 you shouldn’t train, but if it’s 53 you can. Your heart rate tells you so much about your health.’

And follow the example of Bradley Wiggins, who pulled out of the National Track Championships in September with a cold he picked up on the Tour of Britain.

‘Mark Cavendish, in his new book, says cycling is basically self-harm,’ says Goodhew. ‘We go out, kick the shit out of ourselves and love it. And the pros just manage illness better. Unless they’re in the middle of the Tour they’ll take two days off or miss a race when they get a cold. It’s happened a lot this year and it gives you an idea how seriously the pros take illness.’


*This article is reproduced with kind permission from our friends at the Cyclist magazine in the UK.  

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