How To Survive Cold & Flu Season, According To An Immunologist
Every year like clockwork, the dreaded flu and common cold come around, bringing coughing, aches, fever, runny nose, and basic misery with them. But does it have to be this way? Is there anything we can really do to prevent getting sick, or at least to shorten the duration and lessen the nasty symptoms?
As an allergist and immunologist, I get asked these questions every year, so here are my best practices for surviving cold and flu season, both preventive strategies and my top tips for recovering faster.
What is the common cold?
The "common cold" is just a bunch of symptoms caused by about 200 different viruses floating around. The most common one is called rhinovirus—well named because rhino = "nose." Viruses do their damage by invading human cells, taking over the machinery, and replicating themselves like mad.
In the case of rhinoviruses, they are literally inactive until we breathe them into our nose and mouth or they end up on our hands and get transmitted to our mucous membranes (eyes, nose, mouth, etc.). Once they attach themselves to cells and start replicating, our immune system begins the business of trying to kill the virus.
This is really what causes the bulk of common cold symptoms. Our immune system sends out all sorts of chemical messengers like histamine, prostaglandins, and other inflammatory cells to quell the infection. Sometimes this is done really effectively with nary a symptom, but most of the time, we develop the side effect of this, which is swollen nasal membranes, clogged ears, and sore throat.
In addition, viruses are pulled back into our respiratory tract by cilia (the little moving hairs) that line our airways and lungs. Therefore, this virus can develop into a cough and bronchitis.
There tends to be about an 8- to 12-hour incubation period, meaning the time from when we are exposed to when symptoms start. Most symptoms peak in about 72 hours and are gone within a week or so. Some people may suffer for longer, and there are reasons for that.
What is the flu?
While cold viruses can be a pain to deal with, the flu is a more serious issue.
Flu is caused by influenza virus, of which there are several types. Influenza is a much more serious issue as the virus can cause more severe symptoms such as fever, body aches, chills, and even pneumonia in some people. There is risk of hospitalization and even death in the very young, elderly and those with serious medical problems and compromised immune systems.
The flu virus changes every year and has a seasonal pattern affecting the U.S. starting as early as October, peaking in December and January. The flu virus is transmitted the same way as the cold virus and can be picked from surfaces and from airborne respiratory droplets. A flu vaccine is available every year and is recommended by the CDC and other medical organizations.
Do you actually get the cold and flu more often in winter?
Is there a true cold and flu season? Is there any connection between the winter and catching a cold? Actually there is. Respiratory viruses like cold dry air. They survive better in it. In fact, when they get into a normal body-temperature nose that has some nice thin mucus and healthy cilia hairs, they often get trapped. The cilia beat them back into the throat where they are swallowed and destroyed by stomach acid.
In colder air, viruses can survive for longer and are more likely to be able to invade our cells. A dry crusty nose, which often develops from indoor heating systems, is more likely to get invaded and infected. You are also at a disadvantage if you have underlying indoor allergies or if you smoke, both of which can swell and block our nose and create thicker nasal secretions.
Another reason for getting sick in the winter is the fact that we are indoors more and have closer contact with one another. Around the holidays, we might be traveling on planes and buses, which exposes us to a lot more coughing, sneezing, and germs. In addition, children who are the largest vectors for viruses are back at school, where they cross infect each other by rubbing their noses, sneezing, and bringing viruses back home.
Tips to avoid getting sick (or at least feel better fast).
So what can we do to possibly avoid falling prey to these viruses, and how do we navigate symptoms if we do?
1. Clean your surfaces.
There are some real basics here. We know that respiratory droplets land on everything and are carried on inanimate objects as well as by people. First of all, wipe everything down! You don't need to use antibacterial stuff here. At home and in your office, I would put some white vinegar in a spray bottle and some hydrogen peroxide 3% in another. Spray down your solid surfaces, pens, and counters with the vinegar; let rest for a few minutes; and wipe. Do the same with the hydrogen peroxide. Note: Be careful, as this can discolor fabric.
In addition, carry-alcohol based wipes/gel with you to wipe down railings, airplane armrests, gym weights, and your hands frequently. Alcohol can be drying, but it's the most effective and least toxic thing after washing your hands, of course.
Wash your hands before and after meals and try not to touch your eyes, mouth, and nose, especially after shaking hands and playing with babies.
2. Avoid situations in which you might get sick.
Now I know that this may be a tough one. Viruses are everywhere. However, you may want to avoid your friend's house, where little Johnny was just sick, or hanging out in day care, schools, or hospitals unless it's your job. Really any crowded environment ups the ante, so that includes public transportation, crowded parties, and bars. Just use your best judgment and maybe limit the extra kissing, sharing of beverages, and handshaking if at all possible.
3. Make your body less habitable to viruses.
One of your best weapons against viruses is using a nasal rinse and throat spray every day. Remember, viruses attach in the back of the nose and throat. Using a Neti-pot rinse with saline on a daily basis keeps your membranes well hydrated and helps rinse away viruses and allergens. You can also add some natural substances and antivirals to your rinse or use natural throat sprays to limit infections. I like to use xylitol, Manuka honey, propolis, and Ponaris. You also want to keep your bedroom humidified if you have dry heat or the humidity drops below 35%.
4. Keep your defenses up.
Many of us either rarely get infected with colds or, if we do, we get over it quickly. This time of the year, you want to give your immune system all the help you can.
First of all, manage your stress and get adequate sleep. This is the number one reason people get sick in the first place. When we are run down and cortisol soars, our virus surveillance cells dip and we get sick more easily. This also goes for overextending ourselves socially and drinking excess alcohol. If you are feeling a bit sickly, the best thing is to give in and rest up.
5. Supercharge your immunity.
There are many nutrients that are involved in a healthy immune system, but if I had to pick three, I'd choose vitamin C, vitamin D, and zinc. Humans cannot produce vitamin C, so we need a constant intake of it. In addition, it is chewed up with stress, so adding an additional 1,000 mg divided twice daily is a great way to keep your stores up. Zinc deficiency is rampant, and it's such an integral player in immunity, I recommend 15 mg daily and also upping zinc-rich foods, such as oysters, crab, pumpkin seeds, and dark chicken meat.
Since we lose our natural resource of vitamin D from the sun in the winter months, I recommend at least 2,000 IU of D3 daily, but some people need a lot more, so getting a yearly blood test for this is key.
Other foods and herbs are also known to be effective immune boosters. I love medicinal mushrooms for this purpose. Adding in mushrooms such as reishi, turkey tail, maitake, shiitake, and cordyceps at the beginning of cold and flu season can be really helpful.
Astragalus root can be used in tincture form, garlic has hearty antiviral and antibacterial properties, and elderberry syrup can be used both as a preventive as well as a symptom reducer when we are sick.
6. Heat things up.
Last but not least, try an infrared sauna. Several studies show that getting in a sauna once or twice a week can decrease your chances of getting sick, most likely from the elevations in body temperature. It's also beneficial for increasing detoxification capacity, which we all need.
In the end, we can't guarantee not getting sick, but following these steps will make it less likely and certainly get you back on your feet faster.