Cold and Flu Prevention
We’re not out of the woods yet. It’s still cold and flu season here in Canada. The common cold (rhinitis or coryza) is probably the most prevalent infectious disease that occurs in humans. It is estimated that there are up to a billion colds per year in the United States[i]. That’s an average of over three colds per year for every man, woman, and child. In reality the distribution is not that even. Children typically experience 6 to 10 colds per year, while the average adult will get 2 to 4 colds per year[ii]. There is, however some good news for the “over sixty” crowd as they can expect just one cold per year. The flu (influenza) is something different. In Canada, he flu season usually runs from November to April, and an estimated 10-25% of Canadians will get the flu each year. While most of these people recover completely, an estimated 4,000 to 8,000 Canadians, mostly seniors, die every year from pneumonia related to flu, and many others may die from other serious complications of flu[iii], so this illness is nothing to sneeze at.
Colds and flu are both caused by viruses. Viruses very tough little machines that can live for many hours on objects like toys, door handles, telephones, people’s hands and more. If a healthy person touches an object covered with viruses and then touches their nose, mouth or eyes, they can catch the virus. The common cold is caused by several groups of viruses. While rhinoviruses have received the most attention, other cold-causing viruses include adenoviruses, coronaviruses, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), parainfluenza and influenza viruses. Rhinoviruses seldom produce serious illness, but others such as parainfluenza and RSV can produce severe respiratory illness in infants and young children. You can see here how the line between cold and flu can sometimes get blurry depending upon the virus involved.
There are no known cures for colds and flu, so prevention should be your goal. The most effective way for preventing the flu is to get the flu shot. It may not be natural, but it works better than anything else. Health Canada states that flu shots are especially important for children aged 6 to 23 months, people 65 years of age and older, people with chronic conditions such as diabetes, anemia, cancer, immune suppression, lung disease, heart disease, HIV or kidney disease. The flu shot is also recommended for health care workers, and other persons capable of transmitting influenza to at-risk groups.
The following vitamins, herbs, minerals and home remedies are typically used to treat or prevent colds, but do they actually work? Here is where the research presently sits.
Vitamin C has long been believed to play a role in preventing the common cold, however there is no clear evidence yet to support this conventional wisdom. The largest study to date, a 2004 Cochrane review of 29 trials involving more than 11,000 participants, found that vitamin C supplements did not actually reduce the number of colds in the general population. However, one very large meta-analysis conducted at Australian National University did find that vitamin C could slightly reduce the duration and severity of colds in people exposed to cold temperatures or extreme physical stress.
Echinacea is another popular remedy for treating colds. However, like vitamin C few studies have linked its use to preventing colds. One study, published in the July 2007 issue of Lancet Infectious Diseases, found that echinacea could lower the risk of developing a cold by more than 50 per cent and reduce the average duration of a cold by 1.4 days.
Ginseng has been used for centuries to treat a variety of ailments. Most of the recent research has focused on North American ginseng. While research supporting the claim that North American ginseng can boost immunity and prevent colds is minimal, it is growing. A 2005 Canadian study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that people taking a product derived from North American ginseng called COLD-fx suffered 25 per cent fewer colds compared to those who didn’t take the supplement. When participants receiving the herb did get a cold, their symptoms were less severe. Health Canada recently put its stamp of approval on COLD-fx and its maker’s claim that it “helps reduce the frequency, severity and duration of cold and flu symptoms by boosting the immune system.” One note about ginseng is that it is an anticoagulant, so should not be used by anyone on blood thinners.
Chicken soup- Believe it or not, a 2000 study published in the journal Chest found that chicken soup might actually have some beneficial medicinal properties due to its anti-inflammatory effect. Chicken broth, it turns out, contains an amino acid that thins mucus and unclogs stuffy noses. Another study, also published in Chest, found that eating chicken soup, compared to simply ingesting cold water or hot water, made participants noses run faster — which is a good thing, since this helps rid the body of bacteria. Click here for more information on chicken soup studies.
Zinc- Results from studies investigating whether zinc lozenges can prevent a cold, or decrease symptoms, have been inconsistent. Zinc nasal spray and nasal gel however have some notable results. A 2003 study using a zinc nasal gel formulation reported significant reduction in the median duration of symptoms from 6 days with placebo to 4.3 days with the zinc gel, a difference of 1.7 days. Treatment with the spray gel also significantly reduced the time to resolution of all but one cold symptom by 1.3 days. In addition to its effect on symptom duration, zinc nasal gel also significantly reduced the time to resolution of nasal drainage and congestion, hoarseness, and sore throat by 1.5 to 2.0 days.
General Nutrition– In terms of nutrition, your best defence against catching a cold is staying hydrated and eating a healthy, balanced diet that includes protein, whole grains and plenty of fruits and vegetables. By eating a diet that includes a variety of foods you are more likely to meet your vitamin and mineral needs, and that will contribute to your overall health — including a stronger immune system. I do not have the space in this article to provide you with all of the science, but research supports all of the following preventative suggestions. These strategies will work on most viruses, including cold and flu viruses.
– Be careful what you touch. Items such as money, pens, and keypads in public places are all potential sources of infection.
– Keep your feet warm. Cold feet cannot cause a viral infection, but they can undermine your defences thereby opening the door to them.
– Never put your hands in your eyes or to your nose without washing them first.
– Wash your hands often. Wash them thoroughly and meticulously. A bit of OCD isn’t too bad in this area.
– A shockingly large percentage of people fail to wash their hands after using a washroom, so after washing your hands, use a paper towel to turn off the faucet and open the door handle.
– Carry hand sanitizer with you, and use it regularly.
– Scrub under your fingernails every night. They’re a great hiding place for germs.
– Minimize hand contact with your mucous membranes. For example use your knuckle to rub your eyes. It’s less likely to be contaminated with viruses than your fingertip.
– Leave a window in your house open a crack in the winter.
– Lower the heat in your house a few degrees and humidify the air. The dry air of an overheated home provides the perfect environment for cold viruses to thrive and dries your mucous membranes. Try to maintain 50% humidity in your home.
– Sit in a sauna once a week. (An Austrian study published in 1990 found that volunteers who frequently used a sauna had half the rate of colds versus those who didn’t use a sauna at all.)
– Run your toothbrush through the microwave on high for 10 seconds after using it or store it in hydrogen peroxide (rinse well before using). Replace it every month.
– Put a box of tissues wherever people sit. If available, people are less likely to cough and sneeze on their hands and furniture.
– Take a garlic supplement every day.
– Eat a cup of yoghurt daily. (A study from the University of California-Davis found that people who ate one cup of yoghurt had twenty-five percent fewer colds)
– Reduce stress levels. Stressed people have up to twice the number of colds as non-stressed people.
– Once per day, sit in a quiet, dim room, close your eyes, and focus on one word. Meditation is a proven way to reduce stress.
– Get adequate rest. Lack of sleep stresses your immune system
– Change your hand towels every three or four days during cold and flu season. When you wash them, use hot water.
– Raise hygiene levels if someone in your household is sick. Have them use separate linens and hand towels from those who are healthy.
– Keep your nasal passages clear and breathe through your nose. Your nose is able to filter out airborne dust and germs.
– Wipe your nose…don’t blow. The force of blowing not only sends the gunk out of your nose into a tissue, but it propels some back into your sinuses. If you need to blow, blow gently, and blow one nostril at a time.
– Sneeze and cough into a tissue. If you are caught short, cough or sneeze into the “V” of your elbow.
– Don’t pressure your doctor for antibiotics. These can actually hurt by killing off the friendly bacteria that are part of our immune system. If you’ve used antibiotics lately, consider a taking probiotics to replace the friendly bacteria.
– Drink plenty of fluids.
– Get fresh air. Try to get out for walks regularly during the winter months.
– Do regular aerobic exercise 3 to 4 times per week.
– Eat foods containing phytochemicals (dark green, red, and yellow vegetables and fruit).
– Cut alcohol consumption (…maybe this is how I got my last cold!)
While preventative measures to avoid colds or flu are similar, treatment approaches are different, but rest and fluids are important for both illnesses. As always, take your doctor’s advice in these matters. This article is not meant to be a substitute for medical advice. It is, rather additional information for you to consider after first speaking with your primary health care provider. One additional source that you may want to check out is this site: Alternative remedies for Cold and Flu
Good luck and good health to you for the remainder of the cold and flu season.
[i] Todar, K (2006) The Microbial World- University of Wisconsin – Madison
[ii] Todar, K (2006) The Microbial World- University of Wisconsin – Madison