By David H. Rahm, M.D.
Q: Everyone around me is sick! I don’t want to catch a cold and can’t afford the time off from work. Do you have any suggestions on how I can avoid catching a cold or worse, the flu?
With the cold & flu season at its height in February, you’re smart to think about ways to prevent from getting sidelined by sickness. The average adult gets three colds a year, each lasting about a week, so stopping a cold dead in its tracks will save you a lot of downtime from illness.
The good news is that you can reduce your odds of catching a cold or the flu by adopting healthy habits, adding immune-boosting foods to your diet and taking a few nutritional supplements.
Before reviewing these recommendations, let’s make sure you understand the difference between a cold versus the flu and the role antibiotics play when you’re sick.
A Cold vs the Flu – What’s the Difference?
A cold and the flu are similar in that both are caused by a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract. Although more than 200 viruses can cause a cold, 10% to 40% of common colds are caused by the rhinovirus. The flu is caused by the influenza viruses. Traditional flu vaccines are made to protect against two influenza A strains (H1N1 and H3N2) and one influenza B strain.
In a typical year, the influenza virus infects up to a quarter of the population. Although somewhat fewer people have contracted the flu this season, this year’s strain appears to be causing severe illness in those infected. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the flu season is turning out to be particularly bad in the South.
Whether you have a cold or the flu, the chance is you feel miserable. Both cause symptoms that are believed to be primarily related to the immune system response to the virus. Common symptoms for a cold and the flu include tiredness/weakness, aches/pains, sneezing, stuffed up/runny nose, coughing and dry/sore throat.
Although the symptoms are similar they are generally much worse with the flu. The flu often causes a fever, chills, body ache and fatigue and can be a very dangerous disease whereas colds are less likely to cause serious complications.
Most colds last for about a week or so. But, if your symptoms persist or become worse, you need to visit your doctor.
Antibiotics and Colds
Colds, the flu, sore throats and most coughs are caused by viral infections. That means an antibiotic, which helps eradicate a bacterial infection, is not effective. Your doctor will prescribe an antibiotic only if you have a bacterial infection.
Sometimes a bacterial infection will follow a cold virus. Bacterial infections can lead to bronchitis, pneumonia, strep throat and pink eye. Coughing up thick yellow or green mucus may indicate that you have a bacterial infection. If these symptoms persist and you have a bacterial infection an antibiotic will be necessary.
Overuse of antibiotics contributes to antibiotic resistance – the ability of bacteria to resist the effects of an antibiotic. Using antibiotics only when necessary helps control this pressing public health concern.
A Complex Immune System
Unlike the cardiovascular, renal or respiratory system, the immune system doesn’t have the degree of excess capacity. For example, at rest your heart pumps about 5 liters of blood each minute. During exercise, the amount of blood pumped can increase by five times that amount.
With the immune system, a slight change in this intricate system of cells, tissues and organs can cause it to perform below normal or over perform. For example, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis are examples of autoimmune diseases where the immune system is hyper vigilant.
As a result of being fine tuned within a narrow range of function, the immune system is very sensitive to outside influences, particularly changes in nutritional status. The immune system is also one function of the body profoundly affected by aging. Immunocompetence, or the quality of the immune system, declines with age; that is, as people age, the immune system begins to lose some of its function.
Ways to Prevent Getting A Cold or the Flu
Your best defense against catching a cold or getting the flu is to keep your immune system working at peak levels. Below are some steps you can take to optimize this complex system.
Get a Flu Shot. The single best way to protect against getting the flu is to get vaccinated with the flu shot each year. The CDC recommends that everyone who is at least 6 months of age get the flu vaccine. It is especially important for those who are at risk of developing flu related complications such as people with medical conditions, pregnant women and adults 65 years and older to get vaccinated. Some individuals should not get vaccinated and this is something that should be discussed with your doctor. It’s not too late to be vaccinated since infections tend to peak by March. For more information, visit the CDC’s webpage Key Facts About Seasonal Flu Vaccine.
Wash Your Hands. The best way to avoid catching a cold is to wash your hands regularly. When someone with a cold coughs or sneezes, little droplets containing the virus travel through the air and eventually land on surfaces. After touching the contaminated surface, you then infect yourself by touching your eyes, nose or mouth with your hands.
Avoid Common Areas. The more contact you have with a greater number of people, the increased likelihood that you’ll catch a cold from someone. While you can’t avoid work for the entire winter, opt out of social gatherings where the likelihood that you’ll get sick from someone else.
Clean Common Surfaces. To avoid contamination, wipe common areas with a sanitizing gel or alcohol-based hand wipes. For example, before climbing on the elliptical, wipe down the handles and other areas you will touch during your workout. If you work in a busy office and eat lunch at a community table, wipe down the surface before putting down your lunch. Keep in mind that computer keyboards, telephones, faucets and doorknobs all harbor lots of germs.
Bring Your Own Pen. Here’s a common scenario: At check-out the retail salesperson hands you a pen to sign your receipt. Now, think about how many people handled that pen during the day! Better to keep your own pen supply in your bag or pocket so you won’t needlessly get infected by another person’s germs. As a doctor, I must use a pen throughout the day to record a patient’s medical history. I use the Hatch pen, which is made from brass, a material that is inherently antimicrobial.
Get Your Sleep. When you’re tired and run down, you’re much more likely to get sick. Aim to get 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night so that your body is strong enough to ward off any infections that come its way.
Manage Stress in Your Life. Chronic stress can lead to multiple health problems and scientists are exploring how ongoing stress takes its toll on the immune system. Conversely, positive thinking and pleasurable behaviors boost the immune system. Try to create balance in your life so that you can manage sustained challenges.
Get Moderate Physical Exercise. Add enhancing immune function as one more reason to exercise on a regular basis. Moderate exercise increases the activity of a type of white blood cell that attacks viruses. By promoting good circulation, exercise also allows cells and substances of the immune system to move freely through their body.
Don’t be Afraid of the Cold. A common myth is that you’ll catch a cold by going outside in the winter. Although colds are more prevalent during the winter months, this may be due to the drier air which allows water droplets carrying germs to travel more easily. The most common cold viruses also survive better when humidity is low. During colder weather, many of us spend more time indoors, making it easier to catch someone else’s germs. Engaging in winter activities like downhill skiing, cross country skiing or snow shoeing gives you an opportunity to not only get some exercise but enjoy the outdoors and boost your immune system at the same time.
Drink Plenty of Water. During the dry, cold winter months, your body requires additional fluids to remain hydrated. Your immune system requires sufficient moisture to work properly. Aim to drink 7 to 8 glasses daily.
Stop Smoking and Avoid Cigarette Smoke. Heavy smokers get more severe colds and more frequent ones. Smoking increases the risk of infections by making structural changes in the respiratory tract and decreasing immune response. If you work or live in close quarters with a smoker, this increases your risk for developing a respiratory infection.
Watch the Alcohol Intake. While an occasional glass of wine imparts health benefits, heavy alcohol use suppresses the immune system. Drinking in moderation is one drink a day for women or two drinks a day for men.
Eat a Nutritious Diet. Good nutrition is one of the most important factors to maintaining a healthy, balanced immune system. Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables ensures that your body gets the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals necessary to fend off bacteria, viruses and other pathogens. Eat a wide variety of colored produce. Foods that are loaded with immune boosting nutrients include citrus fruits, bell peppers, sweet potatoes, dark leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower), mushrooms and garlic.
Cover Gaps in the Diet with a Multi. A wide range of micronutrients play a role in maintaining the health of the immune system. For example, vitamin A deficiency is associated with impaired immunity and increased risk of infectious disease. This vitamin plays an essential role in maintaining the epithelial and mucosal surfaces and their secretions.
Vitamin C has been studied regarding its role in the prevention and treatment of the common cold. This vitamin may support a decrease in the length of time and severity of symptoms associated with upper respiratory infections. Vitamin C also provides antioxidant activity to support healing at sites of inflammation. Many of the B-vitamins are also very important in supporting a healthy immune system.
If you’re not eating the 5 to 9 servings of fruits and vegetables daily, then supplementing with a high quality multi like VitaMedica’s Multi-Vitamin & Mineral helps ensure that you obtain these nutrients on a daily basis.
Eat Foods High in Zinc. A number of supplements have been studied for their role in preventing a cold from vitamin C and zinc to Echinacea and garlic. A recent review found that daily zinc supplementation worked better than other supplements in the prevention of a cold. Red meats have some of the highest concentration of zinc. Whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds are also good sources of this mineral. Try to obtain 15 mg of zinc daily through diet and supplementation.
Eat Foods High in Vitamin E. This fat-soluble vitamin is important to the proper functioning of the immune system. Vitamin E is an antioxidant that can protect lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell that includes B cells and T cells) from destructive free-radicals. Whole grains, dark leafy greens, peanuts, nuts & seeds and avocados are good sources of this vitamin. Try to obtain 100 to 200 IUs of vitamin E (from natural, mixed tocopherols and tocotrienols) daily through diet and supplementation.
Take a Probiotic Supplement. Over 70% of the body’s immune system is located in the digestive tract. Intestinal bacteria improve the functioning of the intestinal lining to defend against pathogens, bacteria and environmental assaults. Probiotics also help regulate critical components of the immune system including lymphocytes, antibodies and natural killer cells.
Given the gut’s role in immune function, it’s not surprising that evidence suggests probiotics may help prevent colds. In a recent study, probiotic supplements shortened the duration of a cold from six days to four, making the symptoms a third less severe and cut the number of days stayed home in half. Taking a daily probiotic supplement like VitaMedica’s Probiotic-8 is an easy way to obtain these beneficial bacteria.
While you can’t entirely avoid catching a cold or the flu this season, you can limit your chances of getting sick by following these recommendations. And, if you do happen to catch a cold, with a robust immune system, it is more likely to be less severe and of shorter duration.
David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.