10 Ways to Beat a Cold

There’s no cure for the common cold, but that doesn’t mean you’re defenceless. Here are 10 healthy habits that can reduce your risk of catching a cold-and tips on how to ease your suffering if you’re already sick.

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Kicking the common cold

When days get shorter and temperatures drop, we begin to brace ourselves for the aptly named common cold. With good reason: adults usually contract between one and three colds each year, while young children catch about six. And for every person who is coughing and sneezing, there could be two or three people asymptomatically harbouring a cold virus.

But hacking and sniffling aren't foregone conclusions. You can strengthen your body's defences against viruses by taking certain simple steps, and if you're already sick, you can minimize your symptoms. Here's how. 

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1. Wash your hands often

Many products and practices claim to help prevent colds, but cleaning your hands remains the most effective measure. For best results, wash with soap for a minimum of 15 seconds.

When sick people cough or sneeze, tiny droplets sprinkle the surfaces surrounding them with cold viruses. According to Chuck Gerba, a microbiology professor at the University of Arizona, we catch a lot of colds from touching those surfaces. "We bring our fingers to our noses or rub our eyes," he says. "On average, adults touch their faces about 16 times an hour."

If you don't have access to soap and water, hand sanitizers are almost as good at killing germs: they can reduce your risk of contraction by 30 to 50 per cent.

Don't rely only on sanitizer before you're about to eat; use it when you've touched the copy machine at work or a bus handrail. "Viruses spread like lightning through office buildings, homes and mass transit," Gerba says.

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2. Re-think cold medicine

You might be surprised to hear which medications are most effective at soothing colds: over-the-counter painkillers such as Aspirin or ibuprofen. "Most people don't think of those options, but they do treat sore throat pain, sinus pain, muscle aches and pains, chills, fever and headaches," says Ron Eccles, director of the Common Cold Centre at Cardiff University in Wales.

Also possibly effective: nasal sprays containing decongestants such as xylometazoline or oxymetazoline, which can relieve stuffy noses for 10 to 12 hours. Don't give these sprays to children, though, and don't rely on them for more than seven to 10 days, since overuse can cause chronic inflammation.

Avoid antibiotics for cold symptoms, unless your doctor is worried that you might actually have a bacterial infection. While antibiotics can kill bacteria, they are useless against viruses. Taking them unnecessarily contributes to the evolution of bacteria that are resistant to them-a growing international health emergency.

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3. Don't rely too heavily on herbs

Many people reach for echinacea to prevent or shorten the duration of colds. But a recent summary of a systematic review found little evidence that it has these effects, according to Marlies Karsch-Völk, formerly of the Institute of General Practice at Technische Universität München in Munich. "There are a lot of studies about it, but they're not very well performed, so we cannot draw a strong conclusion," she says. 

And although ginseng has been heavily marketed in Canada for cold prevention, results determining its efficacy in fighting the common cold remain inconclusive. "I wouldn't suggest it to patients at this point," says Michael Allan, a family-medicine professor at the University of Alberta. "And if I had limited resources to do a study, I would pick other possible treatments first. If you already use it and think it works for you, then I would say to go ahead and keep using it, since there's not much risk of harm. But it's not where I would put my research efforts."

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4. Take zinc

One dietary supplement that shows some promise in treating a cold is zinc (although further research would be helpful in tracking its effects with more certainty). "It should be in the form of a lozenge or a powder that dissolves in liquid, allowing you to swish and rub it around the inside of your mouth, as it directly binds to virus particles and inactivates them," says Richard Nahas, medical director of Seekers Pain Centre in Ottawa and an assistant professor in the department of family medicine at the University of Ottawa. "A dose of 30 to 200 milligrams a day is safe for short-term use. Many people will likely also benefit by improving a zinc deficiency."

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5. Keep your feet warm and dry

In addition to protecting your head and neck against the chill when you venture outside, make sure your boots are warm and leak-free. Researchers at the Common Cold Centre at Cardiff University divided seemingly healthy people into two groups, believing that some would be harbouring cold viruses. Half had their feet dipped into frigid water, and that group developed significantly more colds within a three- to five-day period. 

"Chilling of any part of the body can do this, but the feet seem to be particularly sensitive," says Eccles. "It's weakening our defences and letting the virus trigger symptoms."

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6. Scoop up yogurt

You may know people who consume yogurt containing probiotics to improve the regularity of their digestive systems. Probiotics-live microorganisms, including specific beneficial bacteria-have also been shown to help boost immune function. A recent review of 10 studies by researchers in South Korea found that eating yogurt that includes probiotics for up to three months can make it easier to ward off colds.

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7. Keep on kissing

You might be inclined to avoid kissing your partner when one of you is sick, but studies conducted over several decades have shown that kissing doesn't transmit cold viruses. Although they're present in the tiny droplets that leave the nose and mouth during sneezes and coughs, your mouth doesn't harbour viruses when you aren't forcefully coughing. 

When kissing a sniffly sweetheart, plant one firmly on his or her mouth, rather than pecking the cheek. As Gerba says, "You have to kiss on the lips because the other person may have touched their face with cold viruses on their hands.

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8. Soothe sore throats with honey and lemon

When you've got a scratchy throat and a cough, fight back with hot, tasty, fruit-flavoured cordials (concentrated fruit juice) or a honey and lemon drink. "They'll provide relief for your sore throat and cough by promoting the production of saliva," says Eccles. 

Honey has the added bonus of being safe for children between one and six years old-an age group that should avoid cough medications, according to a Health Canada advisory. "Don't give honey to infants younger than one because there's a risk of botulism," says Allan. "But otherwise, a spoonful in the evening can help kids to sleep by reducing nighttime coughs."

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9. Brew a pot of green tea

An amino acid in green tea has been linked to cold prevention. In a 2007 study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, U.S. researchers found that the compound, called L-theanine, helped to prevent the incidence of colds and made symptoms less severe among sufferers. "It is unusual for a dietary supplement to reduce the incidence of cold and flu," says author Susan S. Percival, professor and chair of the food science and human nutrition department at the University of Florida. Granted, "this was a fairly high amount, equivalent to eight to 10 cups of tea a day.

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10. Clean mildly

Don't engage in an all-out assault on germs during cold season, even if a member of your household is down for the count. When wiping surfaces, use plain liquid soap; antibacterial soaps are unnecessarily aggressive. "Cleaning with a neutral detergent and a cloth will be sufficient to stop any spread," says Nuala O'Connor, lead adviser on antibiotic resistance for the Irish College of General Practitioners. Furthermore, "if we use too many disinfectants, we're going to encourage the development of resistant organisms."