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Can rheumatoid arthritis make colds worse?

I suffer from mild rheumatoid arthritis which fortunately doesn’t stop me from doing anything I did before. But I've noticed that when I catch a cold it seems to be worse than before I was diagnosed, is this me being ultra-sensitive to my body or does rheumatoid arthritis actually make common ailments worse?
Roena Gooch, via email (Summer 2015)

Dr Tom Margham answers:

Dr Tom MarghamWith rheumatoid arthritis you have what could be described as an overactive, but misdirected, immune system. It's doing its job but in the wrong places – against your own body, rather than materials from outside your body that might be a threat to health.

It’s true that people with rheumatoid arthritis are more prone to infections and, as you describe, it possibly makes minor infections worse. This is partly due to your immune system not working properly and also because of the effects of the drugs used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, which work by damping down the immune system.

One of the most important things you can do is get a flu jab each year and a pneumococcal vaccine (usually only required once) to help stop you picking up flu and the most common cause of pneumonia. These are both ‘inactivated’ vaccines so are safe for people with rheumatoid arthritis. You can read more about this in our vaccination and arthritis information.

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