Don't let a cold or flu get you this year. With simple strategies to prevent, ward off, and banish illness, you can stay well all winter.
You may be breathing easy right now, but adults typically get two to four colds a year, each of which last seven or more days. If the sneezing and body aches aren't enough to convince you to take cold prevention seriously, do the math: That's a huge amount of downtime. Find out the four strategies -- beyond vigilant hand-washing -- that actually work.
It’s easier said than done. We all juggle so much, sleep often gets neglected. Research suggests that only about a third of Americans get the seven to nine hours of shut-eye required to help keep their immune systems operating at full throttle. And payback is hell: One study from Carnegie Mellon University, for example, found that those who averaged fewer than seven hours a night were three times more likely to catch a cold than those who clocked eight or more regularly. One potential explanation is that we produce the hormone melatonin during nighttime sleep, which prompts a key type of immune cells to destroy infected ones. Over time, less sleep leads to less melatonin secretion and a subpar immune system.
A good strategy is to start going to bed earlier, but if you can’t make that happen during the workweek, try to make up for it on the weekend. A recent study published in the journal Sleep found that indulging in as much as 10 hours in one night helped study subjects recover from five nights of sleep deprivation.
It's such a common part of our lives -- especially during the holiday season -- that we almost cease to notice it. Our immune systems, however, are highly aware. A study in Health Psychology suggests that chronic stress, or intense pressure lasting a month or longer, can make you more than two times as likely to get sick when you’re exposed to a cold virus compared with someone who isn’t overstressed.
Lise Alschuler, N.D., advises a three-step approach to cultivating calm:
1. Take a Clear-Eyed View and analyze how stressed out you feel on a day-to-day basis. Be honest: Don’t dismiss high levels with thoughts like, Well, everybody’s busy. Your immune system doesn't care if you're stoic.
2. Identify Your Stress Sources such as work, commute, or volunteer duties.
3. Find Release Valves more effective than a glass of wine. Meditate, cuddle with your cat, make a regular coffee date with a friend (social contact is a known health booster), or take up yoga. Your tissue budget might just shrink.
Bright fruits and vegetables are chock-full of protective vitamins, minerals, plant sterols, and flavonoids that support immune cells. Some even have antimicrobial properties. Upping your intake is an easy way to flood your bloodstream with nutrients that will bolster your entire immune system. Add as much color and variety to each meal as you possibly can.
Researchers at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania asked college students how often they had sex, and then took saliva samples from them. Saliva is telling because it contains immunoglobulin A (IgA), an antibody that binds to viruses and signals the immune system to destroy them. The analysis revealed that the once-or-twice-a-week group had the highest levels of IgA. This may suggest more protection from viruses. Why? Pleasurable activities release endorphins, which rev the immune system. Or sex may just ease stress. Either way, it’s more fun than sneezing.
White blood cells depend on the Bs to mount an immune defense. Find them in whole grains and cereal (B1), leafy greens (B2, B9), dried beans (B6), and eggs (B7, B12). Or take a supplement that contains 25 to 100 mg of each B vitamin.
Essential Fatty Acids
They inhibit inflammation and help cells be more resistant to damage. Find them in cold-water fish, such as salmon, mackerel, herring, anchovies, or tuna; aim for three servings a week. Or take supplements that deliver 1,500 mg of fish oil each day.
Taking these live microorganisms has been associated with all kinds of health benefits -- including cold prevention. A review of 10 studies published in the Cochrane Library found that probiotics seemed to reduce the rate of upper-respiratory tract infections. Find them in yogurt, kefir, and fermented foods like miso. Or supplement: Alschuler recommends blends like Florastor, Jarro-Dophilus, and iFlora.
Glutathione is manufactured in the body and found in some produce, yet most of us are deficient. It promotes cellular processes that, in turn, discourage infections. To get enough, consider supplementation with a glutathione precursor, such as N-acetylcysteine (NAC ), or a glutathione capsule, which some experts, like Alschuler, claim are beneficial. Another antioxidant, CoQ10, which fuels the immune system, is manufactured in the body and available in foods like fatty fish. Supplementing with about 30 to 100 mg a day should do the trick.
Prevention is well and good -- but life happens. You've got a big project or event that you absolutely cannot miss ... and your toddler sneezes in your face. Or, after boarding a plane to fly to your parents' 50th anniversary party, you hear hacking and nose-blowing in the row behind yours. When you're in the germs' crosshairs, amp up your efforts with the following five steps.
It's simple and it works. The Center for Disease Control says washing hands with soap and water is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of colds. Viruses can live for hours on the things we touch on a routine basis, like doorknobs and keypads. Often we unwittingly deliver them to our noses, eyes, and mouths, cold and virus portals. In one program called Operation Stop Cough, new recruits at an Illinois military base were asked to wash their hands five times a day -- an effort that resulted in 45 percent fewer respiratory illnesses than in the previous year.
We know we should wash our hands, but most of us don’t do it well enough. The CDC says that in order to kill germs, you’ve got to be thorough. Lather up and scrub every crevice, including between your fingers and under your nails. Take your time -- at least 20 seconds -- before you rinse and dry.
In a pinch, a hand sanitizer will do (apply it to your palms, rub it everywhere you would soap, and keep rubbing until hands are dry). It won’t remove actual dirt from your hands, and it won’t kill all germs, according to the CDC, so only reach for it when a sink isn’t close by. The best bet: Use a sanitizer along with soap-and-water washing any time you shake hands or touch any communal surface. Choose an ethanol-based formula with an alcohol concentration of at least 60; studies suggest they work best.
One study in the Journal of Environmental Health Research suggests a plane is a very good place to catch a cold. (Confined space, lots of people, and dry air -- cold viruses thrive in this environment.) You’re not much safer in a subway or bus, unfortunately. According to a study from the University of Nottingham in England, those who took public transportation were six times more likely to suffer from respiratory infections than those who didn't. So if you’re going to be boarding a train or tram during the height of cold season, pack a bag of prevention.
In your arsenal:
Keep a health booster on hand for when cold virsues enter your orbit. Our experts' suggestions:
Echinacea, Andro graphus, Astragalus, or Elderberry are go-to herbal immune stimulants, notes Brammer. The first three are antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory. Elderberry (often a syrup) is high in anthocynanins and antioxidants, which help increase cellular absorption of vitamin C (you can also get it in large doses from fruits like cantaloupe, citrus, and vegetables such as peppers and spinach). Vitamin C, in turn, protects the mucosal surfaces of your nose and mouth so viruses have a more difficult time penetrating them. “If you load up when you’re exposed you can really reduce the risk of getting sick,” says Alschuler. All are available in various forms at health-food stores.
Vitamin A, an antiviral, is not something you’d want to ingest on a daily basis because it can damage the liver in large doses. But for the short term -- about one week while you try to dodge a bug -- it’s helpful. Dose: 10,000 IUs a day for up to a week.
Garlic is an antimicrobial you can eat, yet many companies make breath-friendly supplements. Recommended dose: 500 to 1,500 mg a day.
Take a day off. A recent CareerBuilder survey found that nearly 72 percent of people go to work while sick, either because they felt general workplace pressure or because they felt guilty not going in. But "there's no substitute for rest," says Alschuler. "People who actually let themselves sleep recover much faster than those who don’t." Take daytime naps and aim to get 8 to 10 hours each night when you're ill. Bed rest is one of the best things you can do to help your system fight off a virus, according to Woodson Merrell, M.D., chairman of the Integrative Medicine Department at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City and author of "Power Up: Unleash Your Natural Energy, Revitalize Your Health, and Feel 10 Years Younger." “Even if you feel like you can work through the flu, the virus will last longer if you soldier on.” Cancel your appointments, turn off your cell phone, and crawl into bed.
Research at the Cardiff University Common Cold Centre has found that a simple drink of concentrated fruit juice warmed up can relieve cold symptoms including runny nose, cough, sneezing, sore throat, chills, and fatigue. The research, which was published in the journal Rhinology, compared the effects of an apple-and-black currant cordial either hot or at room temperature in 30 volunteers with common-cold symptoms. The heated version provided immediate and lasting relief.
Try Our Recipe: Stir 2 teaspoons black-currant syrup into 1 cup hot apple juice.
If symptoms last longer than 7 to 10 days, call your M.D. You may have a complication that requires treatment.
Once you’ve recovered, think about what you can do now to fight future bugs. If your M.D. isn’t knowledgeable about complementary and alternative medicine, consider consulting with a naturopath or integrative physician in your area, says Alschuler. They can help you decide not only which supplement is best for you, but what products and brands are reputable and where to buy them.
Both Alschuler and Brammer are fans of an old naturopathic technique called the warming socks treatment. Douse a thin pair of cotton socks in water, stick them in the freezer for about 10 minutes, and then slip on a dry pair of wool socks over them and climb into bed. "The body works to heat the feet up, and the benefit is that it increases circulation and is immune-stimulating," says Alschuler. It won’t make a cold go away immediately, but it’ll help get your system fighting back faster.
Colds can't be cured, but they can be tamed.
Clear Your Chest: Combine three to four drops of a volatile essential oil (pine, menthol, or eucalyptus) with a few drops of soothing lavender in olive oil. Rub it on your chest, then apply hot and cold packs for relief. “The heat releases the oils from the herbs into the air,” says Brammer. Once inhaled, she adds, they stimulate blood flow through the lungs. Too sick to DIY? Try products such as Gaia Chest Rub or Young Living Thieves Oil. An expectorant cough medicine containing guaifenesin, like Mucinex, will also help relieve chest tension by thinning mucus, making it easier to cough up.
Breathe Better: Try a steam tent: Drape a towel around your head and lean over a bowl of steaming (not scalding) water mixed with two to three drops of volatile oil. Keeping your eyes closed and your face six inches away from the water, breathe deeply for five minutes. Or try Nazonal, a Chinese herb-based decongestant that’s reputed to be gentler and less drying than many over-the-counter decongestants, Merrell says.
Soothe a Sore Throat: Use zinc cough drops every two hours. The lozenges will coat the irritated throat tissue, dulling pain, while the mineral migrates into your system, potentially reducing the lifespan of the cold. One study from Wayne State University in Detroit found that people who took zinc lozenges every few hours cut the duration of their colds by several days. A few times a day, gargle with Listerine to help kill bacteria in your throat.