A Healthy Winter: How to fight the common cold and flu
Life in the 21st century is chock-full of conveniences: Debit cards. E-mail. K-cups. And yet, don’t look now, but Old Man Winter is heading our way again, with the specter of colds and flus to come lurking behind his shoulder. Must we be saddled with the weariness and misery that colds and flus bring, even in this day and age? Alas, yes. Unfortunately, a cure for the common cold and flu remains as elusive as that mid-January trip to Barbados you were hoping for. But experts are doing their best to pinpoint ways we can make ourselves less of a target for the annual onslaught of sore throats and runny noses, or at least minimize the suffering if we catch a bug.First of all, know what you’re dealing with – a cold or the flu. How can you tell what you’ve got? The difference is in the details, says Sally Al-Abdulla, M.D., a family physician at Goffstown Primary Care and Catholic Medical Center. Colds and flus are both upper respiratory infections, but the flu “has complete body consequences,” she says, sometimes leaving the stricken bed-ridden with body aches, high fever and abdominal pain or discomfort. “The flu can be very severe,” Al-Abdulla says, “whereas a cold is not really a big deal.”Your best shotMost of us dislike having a needle jabbed into our skin, but a flu shot, while not a guarantee against sickness during the upcoming season, can reduce your risk of catching the flu by up to 80 percent, experts say. And even if you still end up getting the flu, your symptoms will likely be less severe than what you would have experienced without the shot. For higher risk or older adults, the flu shot can lessen the chances of hospitalization and even death.Flu shots contain three killed viruses. Because the viruses are inactive, they prompt the immune system, which is our main line of defense against colds and the flu, to arm the body against those viruses without actually triggering influenza. The viruses in the shot change from year to year based on what researchers predict will be the most prevalent strains in the coming months. That is why every autumn brings reminders to get another flu shot; each new year can bring new virus concerns.If you haven’t gotten a flu shot for this winter and want to get one, don’t dilly-dally. It takes about two weeks for the immunization to generate the protective antibodies that can defend you from the viruses in the vaccine, and it’s best to have those antibodies in place before the peak of flu season, which usually occurs in January or February, according to the Centers for Disease Control. However, even a flu shot that is not ideally timed can still offer protection as viruses continue to circulate.Just about everybody should get a flu shot unless they have a medical reason not to, Al-Abdulla says. But remember, a flu shot does not decrease your risk of getting a cold because colds and flus are triggered by different viruses. “That always causes confusion,” Al-Abdulla says. “People come in and say, ‘I got the flu shot and then I caught a cold.’ And we say, ‘It’s because they’re not the same thing.'”Give your immune system a little loveAnother key way to ward off winter illness is to maintain your overall health throughout the year, which will help your immune system to stay strong, Al-Abdulla says. Remember that stress is not your friend since it taxes your immune system, and – listen up, kids – not dressing appropriately for the weather also does not do your immune system any favors. Heading outside in chilly air without a jacket or with wet hair are not smart choices unless you want to make yourself more vulnerable to lurking viruses, Al-Abdulla says.Vitamins C and D, on the other hand, strengthen your immune system, so try to get adequate amounts of each throughout the year. Ditto for zinc, which some research shows can be a helpful ally in the battle against colds and flu, says Al-Abdulla. “Chronic deficiencies will hurt you in the long run,” she says. But once you’ve got a cold, or suspect that one might head your way soon, there’s no use in trying to manipulate or shore up your immune system. By that time “it’s too late,” Al-Abdulla says, so don’t bother megadosing. If you do, “you’ll just excrete the extra vitamins and minerals in your urine,” she says.Feed a cold and starve a fever?If you do get sick, since there’s no cure for colds or flu, the best you can do is try to alleviate symptoms. Rest, drink plenty of water and take medicine if necessary for fever, Al-Abdulla says. There’s no need to “starve” a cold or “feed” a fever, but after developing symptoms, which can appear the same day that exposure to a virus occurs – although more commonly about 48 hours later – be considerate. “If you’re still blowing your nose and your nose is runny, you’re still spreading the virus,” Al-Abdulla says.If your symptoms strongly persist for more than a week, or you have special medical considerations, you should consider seeing a doctor, Al-Abdulla says. But if you are in decent health and just have the typical symptoms of a runny nose, fever and sore throat, you probably needn’t bother. “There’s not much we can do to help you, unfortunately,” Al-Abdulla says. “Believe me, whoever invents the cure is going to be a millionaire.” But for now, the old tried and true approach still applies: common sense, caution, careful hand washing and for children, especially, diligent hand washing and aiming coughs and sneezes into the crook of the elbow to minimize the spread of germs. NHA Naturopathic ApproachIf you’re looking for a less conventional way to deal with colds and flu, consider naturopathy. A naturopathic approach to a cold or flu might include herbs, homeopathy and high-dose vitamins, says Julia Greenspan, M.D., a naturopathic general family practitioner at Greenhouse Naturopathic Medicine in Hollis. Naturopathic doctors view cold and flu symptoms as “the body’s way of trying to make itself a very uncomfortable place for the viruses or bacteria to live,” Greenspan says.Even though naturopathic doctors want to make patients as comfortable as possible and to expedite recovery, they emphasize working with the immune system and try to avoid any actions that are likely to hamper it, if possible, Greenspan says. So, rather than recommend taking medicine to lower a mildly elevated temperature, for instance, a naturopathic doctor will probably advise a cold or flu patient to allow the fever to run its course – assuming that it doesn’t reach a worrisome level. Otherwise, “the illness can be prolonged by squelching those symptoms . . . and taking medications that don’t really deal with the cause of the problem,” Greenspan says.When necessary, a naturopathic doctor might prescribe an antibiotic, Greenspan says. “But it’s about trying the least invasive approach first and trying to work with the immune system first – giving it a time limit and seeing how the patient does within, say, 48 to 72 hours, depending on the severity of the illness,” she says. Naturopathic doctors “have faith that the body knows what to do, that we come into this world built with the ability to survive our environment,” she says.