How to Stop a Cold (or the Flu) Before it Starts
What works -- and what doesn't -- when it comes to revving up your immune system
Once you notice trees dropping their leaves, days getting shorter, nights getting darker, and the air feeling a little crisper, you can be sure of two things: Drugstore aisles will be crammed with cold and flu preventions, from echinacea to zinc. And "coffee talk" with friends, family, and coworkers will inevitably turn to how to prevent a cold or the flu – or even ways to steer clear of the latest virus.
Seems like everyone has his or her own method for preventing colds and flu, from simple rules like never leaving the house with wet hair, to more deliberate methods such as:
- Taking a special combo of vitamins and minerals
- Sipping an effervescent vitamin drink
- Getting a daily dose of an herbal remedy
- Loading up on garlic
So with cold and flu season right around the corner, it's important to know which, if any, supplements can really help prevent a cold or the flu. Take our quick interactive quiz and find out how to stop a cold in its tracks.
What really keeps cold and flu bugs at bay?
1. Your neighbor is an avid skier and swears that taking vitamin C every day keeps her healthy and on the slopes. She also claims it will help keep you cold-free. Is she right?
The correct answer is:
It depends on how active you are. Despite long-held beliefs linking vitamin C and cold prevention, the only people for whom a daily dose of vitamin C has proved to reduce the incidence of colds are those who regularly engage in strenuous outdoor activities in cold climates.
2. You saw a woman at the health food store stocking up on echinacea and overheard her tell her friend that it's a cold's worst enemy. Is it?
The correct answer is:
Yes and No
This herbal remedy has not proved effective at preventing colds, but it may be helpful in treating them.
3. You clipped a coupon from the local paper for a new probiotic supplement. Could this be the answer to preventing colds and the flu?
The correct answer is:
Probiotics are the latest buzz in the nutrition world, and although the latest studies show they may help to shorten the duration of a cold, they don't seem to prevent them.
To Prevent Colds and Flu: Think H.E.A.L.
No one supplement is going to defend your body against the more than 200 viral invaders that can cause colds. This task requires a multilevel approach. It's impossible to entirely eliminate harmful germs, but you can develop a solid defense plan to reduce the number of malicious invaders. Luckily, most germs are pretty predictable.
When it comes to watching over your health, H.E.A.L. is an acronym that should be pretty easy to remember, right? It's a four-tiered approach to warding off cold and flu viruses year-round and stands for:
H -- healthy habits
E -- healthy environment
A -- healthy alternatives
L -- healthy lifestyle
Keep in mind that cold and flu viruses are everywhere and are spread easily from surface to surface. Because they are so numerous and so prevalent, it's important to be vigilant about maintaining a few basic healthy habits that can keep you from getting infected.
Think of your hygiene habits as your first line of defense. These habits are the gatekeepers to good health, restricting access to your body and maintaining the harmony that keeps your immune system running smoothly.
For example, washing your hands is probably the most important thing you can do to battle cold and flu viruses. But the big question is, are you doing it enough? Of course you know you should wash your hands after using the bathroom and before cooking and eating, but it's also important after coughing or sneezing, to avoid spreading your germs around.
Antibacterial soaps and wipes have gained popularity, but research suggests plain old soap and water may eradicate germs AND eliminate viruses much more effectively. Just be sure to suds up for at least 15 seconds, and if you have children or grandchildren around, remind them to do the same. For those times when you don't have access to soap and water, alcohol rubs and hand wipes may offer some protection against certain infectious agents.
Secondly, since most germs like to hitch rides on your hands, and their favorite entry points are the mouth, nose, and eyes, some other habits you may need to break include:
- Rubbing your eyes
- Touching your nose and mouth
- Biting your nails
Remember, anytime you bring your hands to your eyes, nose, or mouth, you are inviting germs into your body. So put away the welcome mat and don't let those bugs in. It may be hard to do at first, because we often touch our faces without even realizing it. But eliminating this germ gateway into the body could keep you much healthier in the months ahead.
If you live in a cold climate, there's good reason why the incidence of colds and flu increase in the winter. It's not cold temps that can make you sick, but close quarters and less air circulation. Chilly weather drives people indoors, and rubbing elbows with your friends and neighbors allows viruses to spread more easily. But don't shun your friends entirely this winter. Keeping up your social network provides support and protection against stress -- a big contributing factor to a diminished immune system. Just do your best to maintain a healthy environment.
Even if your home appears to be clean, viruses may be lurking on household surfaces. Cold viruses can survive for 3 hours on surfaces like telephones and light switches. One of the easiest ways to defend your home from these unwanted guests is to use a disinfectant spray that kills viruses on items in your home that are touched frequently: doorknobs, faucets, remote control. Among disinfectants, Lysol appears to do the best job. Bleach also is an effective germ killer, but the chlorine fumes may be disagreeable -- as well as possibly harmful to your health.
As you know, there is no cure for the common cold. With the sheer number of different viruses that cause colds (many of which still remain unidentified), it's difficult to see a vaccine on the horizon. But a few dietary supplements have shown promise in reducing the frequency of colds in some populations. Let's take a closer look at how to incorporate these into your diet.
- In a study suggesting a link between taking a garlic supplement daily and fewer colds of shorter duration, allicin appears to be the active ingredient responsible for that benefit. Although cooked garlic doesn't contain allicin, raw garlic does, which should help in the same immune-boosting way as supplements. Try mixing minced garlic with yogurt and chopped cucumber for a Greek dip called tzatziki. This can be eaten alone, with bread, or as sauce with a meal.
- Several types of ginseng are available, but American ginseng, known as Panax quinquefolium, is the type that has been linked to reducing the incidence of colds. Because research regarding herbal remedies, such as ginseng, is still in the early stages, RealAge has not yet established a recommended optimal dose. Consult several references to determine the appropriate dose for you.
- In addition to possibly helping ward off upper respiratory infections, vitamin E also is an important antioxidant that can help boost the immune system. Almonds and sunflower seeds are good sources of vitamin E. Sweet potatoes and avocados also contain vitamin E. For a list of food sources of this important vitamin, check out RealAge's Vitamin and Nutrient Best Bets. Although it's best to get your daily vitamin E through your diet, most people need to take a supplement to ensure they get the RealAge Optimum dose of 400 international units (IU) per day; foods generally contain only small amounts of vitamin E. When taking a vitamin E supplement, make sure it contains mostly naturally occurring forms of vitamin E: tocopherols (especially gamma tocopherol) and tocotrienols. On supplement labels, natural vitamin E will be listed with a "d-" prefix, such as d-alpha tocopherol or d-gamma tocopherol. Synthetic forms will have a "dl-" prefix.
Living well contributes to an immune system that's ready to wage battle against germs. Here are a few of the golden rules for keeping your immune system working at its optimum level:
- Don't skip meals. Regularly eating healthy meals has been shown to boost the immune system.
- Get enough sleep. Sleep induces growth-hormone release, which in turn stimulates the immune system.
- Be active. Exercise contributes to feelings of overall well-being and reduced stress, which also helps your immune system. In addition, it has been shown to enhance the antibodies of the flu vaccine -- good to know if you're a person who is vaccinated annually against influenza.
- Reduce stress. Stress lowers the body's immune response, leaving you vulnerable to colds and flu. Try meditation or activities like tai chi or yoga to reduce your stress levels.
What to Do When Germs Attack
So you've followed our advice and put up all of your defenses, but somehow you can feel you're coming down with something. Maybe you've got a little tickle in your throat. Or perhaps you just feel a bit more run down than usual. That's it, you tell yourself: You're getting sick. There's never a good time to catch a cold or come down with the flu, but you don't have to take it lying down.
So what should you do? Take high doses of vitamin C? Reach for the bottle of echinacea? Suck on some zinc lozenges? Or do you stick to Mom's old-fashioned remedies: bowls of chicken soup, hot tea, and menthol rubs to fight off those bugs the best you can?
As noted, some dietary supplements may help shorten the duration and/or reduce the severity of symptoms if taken at the onset of a cold or the flu. Many of these need to be taken within 24 hours of onset in order to be effective, so be sure to act quickly. You might want to keep some of these on hand in your medicine cabinet so you can be armed and at the ready!
- Zinc: Zinc has been shown to shorten the length of a cold and lessen the symptoms, as long as it's taken within 24 hours of the cold's onset. Too much zinc can be toxic, however, so don't go overboard. Consult your physician.
- Echinacea: According to some studies, echinacea also may help reduce the duration of a cold. Follow product instructions.
- Vitamin C: This popular vitamin may help to reduce the length of a cold, but not as much as you might think. However, it appears that the dose affects the benefit. One study found that when participants took 3 grams in divided doses spread throughout the day, the reduction in cold duration was more significant than when a single dose was taken.
- Elderberry: Elderberry has long been used for its antiviral properties. According to one study, it reduced the length of the flu by an average of 4 days. Follow product instructions or consult your doctor.
- Probiotics: Dietary supplements containing the beneficial bacteria lactobacilli and bifidobacteria have been shown to reduce the duration of the common cold by almost 2 days.
Finally, the Old Stahat to Do When Germs Attack
Of course, there's nothing wrong with going back to basics and doing what your mom probably advised when you were getting sick: Get plenty of rest and have a bowl of chicken noodle soup.
She may have been right.
According to research, chicken soup may have some medicinal qualities after all. Some ingredients in traditional chicken soup seem to have an anti-inflammatory effect, helping to alleviate the symptoms of upper respiratorytract infections. So if you've come down with a cold and there's nothing more to be done, go ahead and slurp up a bowl. And tell your mom thanks for the advice.