As cold and flu season approaches, many patients ask what they can do to decrease their risk of getting sick.
The first and most important step is to build a strong immune system:
1) The key element of building a immune system is good nutrition. Our immune system depends on the nutrients that we eat to produce white blood cells and antibodies to fight infection.
- Adequate protein intake – antibodies are proteins in the blood that sequester viruses and bacteria. Make sure to eat protein with every meal whether from high-protein plants (seeds/nuts, beans, spinach), dairy (yogurt, cottage cheese, almond milk), and lean proteins.
- At least 5 servings of fruits and veggies per day, especially those that are orange, red and yellow in color which are high in beta carotene and vitamin C
- Foods rich in selenium and zinc such as nuts, seeds and seafood
- Eat fermented foods such as yogurt (without added sugar), kefir, tempeh, etc… that are rich in good bacteria which protect you from infection. You can also supplement with a probiotic.
2) Moderate exercise strengthens the immune system while extreme exercise weakens it.
3) Sunshine and/or Vitamin D supplementation to maintain a Vitamin D level between 50-70. If you are not monitoring your Vitamin D blood levels, take at least 1,000 IU of Vitamin D per day.
4) Adequate sleep – sleep deprivation decreases the body’s production of certain types of immune cells and also increases the inflammatory response which can make the response to infection more severe and prolonged. Get at least 7 hours of sleep per day.
5) Stress reduction – chronic stress weakens the immune system and can increase your risk for infection. Practice at least 30 minutes of relaxing activities every day such as prayer, meditation, reading, music, yoga/Tai Chi, etc…
The 2nd step is to decrease your exposure to infection:
1) Wash your hands frequently (soap and water is adequate).
2) Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
The 3rd step is to increase the above nutrients at the first sign of a cold/flu:
1) Probiotics have been shown to decrease the duration of colds by several day. I recommend taking a probiotic with at least 15 billion CFU daily and increasing to 100 billion CFU at the first sign of a cold/flu.
2) Vitamin C has been shown in some studies to decrease the duration of cold/flu. I recommend taking 1,000 to 1,500 mg daily of Vitamin C in divided doses at the first sign of cold/flu.
3) Zinc has also been shown to decrease the duration of cold/flu. Start zinc lozenges within 24 hours of cold/flu symptoms to decrease the duration of the illness.
4) Beta-Glucan – This supplement is a plant-based fiber boosts the immune system and has been shows to shorten the duration of colds/flu.
Why not use antibiotics for the common cold?
- Most URIs are viral and antibiotics do not help.
- Antibiotics do have risks including severe allergic reactions and gastrointestinal problems due to killing off the good bacteria that should live in the colon.
- Inappropriate use of antiobiotics increases the chance that bacteria become resistant, contributing to the problem of “superbugs” that can cause severe infections that we are unable to treat.
What can you do to feel better while your body is fighting off the viral illness?
Over the counter medications for symptom relief:
- For nasal congestion, sinus pressure, and/or sinus headache:
- Afrin (oxymetolazone) nasal spray – 2 sprays in each nostril twice daily for NO MORE THAN 3 days (if you use of this nasal spray for longer periods of time then stop, it can cause a rebound effect of worse nasal congestion)
- Decongestants combined with Tylenol or Advil (such as Tylenol Sinus or Advil Sinus): take as instructed on package.
- For runny nose and sneezing: Claritin or Zyrtec
- For sore throat: Cepacol Extra Strength, Cloraseptic spray or warm salt water gargles
- For fever, throat pain, and/or body aches: Tylenol (Acetaminophen) 500mg 2 tabs every 6 hours or Advil (Ibuprofen) or Aleve (Naproxen) 220 mg 2 tabs twice daily
DO NOT TAKE TYLENOL IF YOU HAVE ANY HISTORY OF LIVER DISEASE/HEPATITIS OR HEAVY ALCOHOL USE
DO NOT TAKE IBUPROFEN OR NAPROXEN IF YOU HAVE ANY HISTORY OF KIDNEY DISEASE
If the over the counter medication is not relieving your symptoms adequately, there are prescription strength medications for cough and sore throat.
Signs that you should see a doctor and/or that you may need antibiotics:
Viral URIs can turn into secondary bacterial infections such as sinus infections, pneumonia or ear infections. If you have any of the following, call your doctor.
- Symptoms worsening after 7 days of onset
- Symptoms not improving after 14 days of onset
- Fever after the first few days of the illness
- Chest pain, shortness of breath, coughing up blood
- Severe ear pain on one side