Preventing a cold or flu
Catching a cold or the flu tells us our immune system is challenged or overburdened, says Bradley Bongiovanni, ND, a naturopathic doctor from Portland, Oregon. “Refined sugars, smoking, caffeine, sleep deprivation, alcohol, and stress all challenge the immune system,” says Bongiovanni. If you want to optimize the function of your immune system and avoid getting sick, you need to accomplish two goals: The first is to decrease the overall burden placed on the body by making appropriate lifestyle changes. The second is to eat a varied, healthful diet emphasizing fresh whole foods, ensure adequate sleep, learn to manage your stress effectively, and engage in some sort of physical movement that stimulates the circulatory and lymphatic systems.
For an extra immune system boost during winter months, Bongiovanni suggests taking a high-potency antioxidant formula including vitamins A, C, E, and selenium as well as vitamin C itself up to a range of 1,000 to 3,000 mg a day. He also recommends flaxseeds or flaxseed oil, a “superfood” rich in essential fatty acids that act as a natural anti-inflammatory on irritated membranes. Flaxseed is also thought to be an aide in combatting heart disease, certain types of cancer, menstrual cramps, acne, and depression.
Traditional Remedies That Work
Carolyn Dean, MD, ND (naturopathic doctor), combines the best of conventional medicine and alternative remedies to treat her patients. The author of Dr. Carolyn Dean's Complementary Natural Remedies for Common Ailments, she believes that preventive medicine “empowers individuals to take care of themselves.” Here are some of her tried-and-true remedies:
Drink chicken broth. Not only does hot soup alleviate nasal congestion and help prevent dehydration, but studies show that chicken broth actually shortens the duration of colds, according to Dean's research.
Try taking a bath with Epsom salts. The magnesium sulfate in Epsom salts encourages sweating, which helps the body discharge harmful toxins.
Avoid dairy products and bread, which tend to worsen the congestion often associated with colds and flus. When the illness has come to an end, resume consumption of dairy products and bread to maintain a healthy and well-balanced diet.
Carolyn Dean, MD, also recommends these herbal remedies when you're under the weather. If you take medication, check with your doctor before taking herbs.
For a cough.
Steep some sage in freshly boiled water for at least 20 minutes. Drink hot or cold.
For head congestion.
Steep fenugreek in boiled water for five minutes. Drink this tea warm.
Steep two tablespoons of freshly grated ginger in three cups of boiled water. Use it as a gargle or soak a hand towel in it, and hold towel to head.
To boost your immune system.
Dean recommends a daily dose of echinacea during the winter months as a preventive measure. The herb should not be used by anyone with a severe illness or an autoimmune disorder such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, or lupus.
For chest congestion.
Steep the herbs mullein or lobelia in boiled water. Then saturate a hand towel with the warm liquid, place it on your chest, and relax.
Your Child's Cold
“The single best measure you can take to prevent your children from catching a virus is encouraging them to wash their hands,” says Jay Hoecker, MD, a specialist in pediatric infections at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
Contrary to popular belief, children are no more susceptible to colds and flu than adults. But they tend to touch their faces and noses — and each other — more than adults and are less careful about hygiene. Encourage your children to wash their hands on a regular basis, especially before meals, after school, and before and after playtime to prevent the spread of viruses, suggests Hoecker.
Hoecker does not recommend over-the-counter remedies for children. Decongestants can agitate children, restrict blood flow, and stimulate heart rate, while aspirin can increase the likelihood of your child developing Reye's Syndrome, a dangerous complication of viral infections that can cause liver or brain inflammation. If your infant or child is stuffed up, try a homemade remedy first. Hoecker recommends saltwater nose drops made with half a teaspoon of salt to eight ounces of water. This homemade decongestant is safer, more effective, and less expensive than over-the-counter medicines.
Let a cold run its course. Over-the-counter medications can interfere with the body's natural healing process and can even depress your immune system. Use them sparingly.
Don't treat a productive cough with a suppressant, since coughing is your body's way of ridding itself of accumulated phlegm.
Disinfect your appliances such as telephones and remote controls to avoid infecting others and re-infecting yourself.
Change the bed linens and bath towels frequently and use disposable towels in shared bathrooms and in the kitchen.
Take zinc lozenges at the onset of a cold to lessen its duration and severity.
Use a humidifier regularly during the winter months.
Dian Dincin Buchman, PhD, author of The Complete Book of Water Therapy, suggests that you soak your feet in a relaxing footbath of warm water with two tablespoons of dried mustard powder added to relieve nasal and chest congestion.
Fact or Fiction
Joe Schwarcz, PhD, of Discovery Channel fame and director of McGill University's Office for Chemistry and Society (MOCS) in Montreal, dispels some myths about colds and flu.
Myth: Cold weather causes colds and flu.
Fact: Although colds and flu are more common in the winter months, this has less to do with the weather than with confinement indoors. Viruses spread much more quickly in dry, heated, indoor areas where air doesn't circulate well, and direct contact with germs is far more likely. Plus, central heating systems dry out mucus membranes, which are the body's natural defense against viruses.
Myth: Kissing spreads colds and flu.
Fact: According to Inlander, colds are much more likely to be spread by hand contact than by oral contact.
Myth: It's dangerous to exercise when you have the symptoms of a cold or flu
Fact: Provided you're not running a fever, some mild exercise — such as a brisk walk — will help your antibodies fight the virus.
Myth: Wet feet, wet hair, and exposure to cold weather and drafts can cause colds.
Fact: Although getting chilled can lower your resistance if you're already run down, you can only catch a cold or flu if you come in contact with a cold or flu virus. In fact, a little fresh air can help clear your head if you are sick.
Myth: A low-grade fever should be treated with aspirin or acetaminophen.
Fact: A mild fever is the body's way of fighting off viruses. Plus, a low-grade fever helps get antibodies circulating throughout your body.