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Office Hygiene – Reducing the Risk of the Common Cold

man sneezing

The winter season is always a time when coughs and colds are much more prevalent in the workplace. In modern offices where there is often a large group of people in a reasonably confined area, it is quite common for these viruses to spread quickly. Whilst much has been written about flu epidemics in recent years, this article focuses on the common cold which can be just as prevalent over the winter months.

In this article we take a look at what the common cold virus is and how it spreads. We also offer some practical ideas on what you and your company can do to help reduce the risk of infection.

So what is a common cold?

The common cold is an illness caused by a virus infection located in the nose. It can also involve the sinuses, ears, and bronchial tubes. Although there are over 100 different types of cold viruses, the Rhinoviruses are the most common type and cause at least half of the colds each winter.

The symptoms of a common cold include sneezing, runny nose, nasal obstruction, sore or scratchy throat, coughing, hoarseness, and mild general symptoms like headache, feverishness, chilliness, and not feeling well in general.

Colds last on average for one week. Mild colds may last only 2 or 3 days while severe colds may last for up to 2 weeks. A cold is a milder illness than influenza (the flu). Influenza typically causes fever, muscle aches, and a more severe cough. However, mild cases of influenza can be similar to colds.

How do you catch a cold?

Cold viruses grow mainly in the nose of a person with a cold. The highest concentration of cold virus, in the nasal secretions, is during the first three days of infection. This is when the infected person is most contagious.

The Cold virus may be caught through:

  • The air from others coughs and sneezes.
  • The hands of people with colds as a result of nose blowing, covering sneezes, and touching the nose.
  • Objects and surfaces in the environment surrounding a cold sufferer.

Why do you get sick?

Once a cold virus is deposited into the front of the nasal (nose) passages, it is then transported to the back of the nose and onto the adenoid area by the nose itself.

cold virus docking

Figure: virus attaching to nasal cell

The virus, being much smaller than the cells in your nose, gets absorbed into these cells where it starts an infection. New virus particles are produced inside the infected cell.

virus replication

Figure: series of four pictures showing stages of cell death

The infected cell eventually dies and ruptures, releasing newly made cold virus to infect other cells in the nose and start the process over again. From the time a cold virus enters the nose, it takes 8-12 hours for this viral reproductive cycle to be completed and for new cold virus to be released in nasal secretions. Cold symptoms can also begin shortly after the virus is first produced in the nose (10-12 hours).

How do you prevent cold?

Things you can do to prevent the spread of infection are:

  • Use a tissue to cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze.
  • Place, rather than throw the tissue in a bin (preferably one with a lid).
  • Try and keep away from other people.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water
  • Dry your hands well on a paper towel
  • If you are coughing or sneezing more than normal then stay home.

Cold remedies? How should you treat a cold?

There seems to be no effective way of treating an ordinary cold to make it go away any quicker. Since a cold is caused by a virus, antibiotics are not appropriate. However, there are some things you can do to ease the discomfort:

  • Make sure you drink plenty of non-alcoholic fluids, ideally water. Many symptoms can be soothed by warm drinks.
  • Sleep with the head on a high pillow.
  • There's no need to reduce daily activities, but you should expect to become tired more easily.
  • Avoid smoking. It irritates the mucous membrane of the nose further.
  • A blocked nose and chesty cough can be eased by using steam inhalations, which help to loosen mucus.
  • Symptoms such as a cough, sore throat, nasal congestion and headache can be relieved by a variety of over-the-counter medicines. Get advice from a pharmacist regarding which products are the most suitable for you and your symptoms.
  • As always, if symptoms persist, make sure you see your health professional.

What should I do to prevent catching a cold from others?

Some things you can do to reduce the risk of contamination are:

  • Wash and dry your hands regularly and properly using soap or an antiseptic hand wash
  • Dry your hands thoroughly, using a disposable towel.
  • Don’t place your own fingers up your nose.
  • Try to stay at least one metre away from contaminated people
  • Where practical, avoid contact with infected people.
  • Ensure that the office working surfaces around you which your hands come into contact with are cleaned regularly.

What can a Workplace do to minimize the spread of colds?

Things that a Workplace can do to prevent infection are:

  • Provide hand washing facilities, including hot water, a basin, soap and paper towels.
  • Provide a covered, lined bin for used paper towels.
  • Make sure staff know and practise good coughing and sneezing habits.
  • Put up Posters that encourage staff to wash and dry their hands before and after eating and grooming.
  • Encourage a time of isolation (at home?) especially during the most contagious period (first three days).
  • Ensure the Workplace is well ventilated.
  • Surfaces frequently touched by hands should be cleaned daily.
  • Ensure cups, dishes and cutlery are washed with soap and hot water. Do not share these items!

Take home tip on the common cold

Remember the Common Cold is not called Common for NO reason. It is very common and is able to spread very quickly. However, taking good practical hygiene steps, such as described above, will help to reduce the risk of infection.


Ross Thomson, a Director of Joyworkz Ltd.

Sources include:

The Common Cold.

Department of Labour (NZ). Pandemic Planning: Ways to Stop the Spread of Flu at Work. Retrieved 20/8/12.

Netdoctor (UK). The Common Cold. Retrieved 20/8/12.


2012© Joyworkz Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

P.S. Do you like this article?. If so, feel free to post a link on your intranet, e-newsletter, blog, face-book page or email to your friends and colleagues. We are keen for everyone to have the opportunity to live a healthy work life!





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