Why having the flu could protect you from catching a cold

‘Tis the season to be merry and constantly blowing your nose. In the run up to Christmas, it’s fairly common to catch a cold, or worse, get the flu.

But according to new research, the latter could prevent you from contracting the former. 

The new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and conducted at the University of Glasgow, has found that people who suffered from influenza over a nine year period were 70 per cent less likely to have also caught the common cold.

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The research also found that common cold infections were generally less frequent during influenza season (typically the end of autumn to the beginning of spring).

The findings were based on data from 12,645 patients at NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde board who tested positive for respiratory viruses between 2005 and 2013.

Researchers looked at how 11 different viruses interacted with one another, but the most notable correlations were between influenza A and rhinovirus, another name for the common cold.

Lead author Dr Sema Nickbakhsh, from the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research at the University of Glasgow, said: “One really striking pattern in our data is the decline in cases of the respiratory virus rhinovirus, which is typically a mild common cold causing virus, occurring during winter, around the time that flu activity increases.

“In the same way as lions and spotted hyenas compete for food resources in the Masai Mara, we believe respiratory viruses may be competing for resources in the respiratory tract.”

Nickbakhsh added there are “various” possible reasons for this, explaining that it could be these viruses are “competing for cells to infect in the body”, or that the “immune response to one virus makes it harder for another unrelated virus to infect the same person”.

 Dr Pablo Murcia of Glasgow University, who also led the research, added that traditionally, researchers have studied viruses in isolation.

“You study only flu or rhinovirus,” he said. “But we’ve shown here that we need to also be studying these viruses together like it’s an ecosystem.

“My team are now doing experiments to try and understand how respiratory viruses, including influenza and rhinovirus, interact.

“If we understand how viruses interact and how certain viral infections may favour or inhibit each other, then maybe we can develop better ways to target viruses.”

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