Colds account for more school and Uni absences and missed work (more than 27 million days a year) than any other illness and are the number one reason people visit their GP - even though your GP has nothing to offer in the form of treatment.
It's a misconception that colds are caused by getting wet and cold. They are caused by viruses and that means things like antibiotics are absolutely useless. Having a cold is all about you and your immune system - you have to wait until your internal defences have got their act together and defeated the invading microbes. The best place to do that is at home in the warm under a duvet or blanket with lots of warm fluids and soups. That way you'll get better quicker and, most importantly, won't pass it on.
The one comfort is that catching a cold once a year, although very annoying, is proof that your immune system is alive and kicking. Although if you're prone to lots of colds or they linger more than 4 or 5 days it might be worth seeing the Doc just in case.
If your immune system is operating at its peak, it should actually be quite easy for you to fend off the virus without ever getting sick. On the other hand, if you're a bit 'peaky' as they say, and your immune system is weak, your body is basically offering an open-door 'come on in and make yourself at home policy for viruses.
So unless you become a hermit and avoid the world at large the simple and short answer is to make sure your immune system is in good nick. In which case knowing the common causes of a weakened immune system is a good starting point:
Burning the candle at both ends may sound like a balanced lifestyle but it's not a good strategy when you feel a bit under the weather. The moment you start coming down with something it's time to address nutrition, sleep, exercise, and stress.
Vitamin D: the 'sunshine' vitamin is vital for so many of the body functions. Now it's also widely recognised that people living away from the equator are often naturally deficient in Vitamin D which the body makes when skin is exposed to sunlight. Obviously in the winter we all struggle for this and our indoor lifestyle and covering up with clothes don't help.
It's used by your body to kill bacteria, viruses and fungi - so low vitamin D levels in your body will significantly impair your immune responses and make you more likely to catch colds and other bugs. You can find out your levels by asking your doctor or a nutritionist for a test. If your doctor is not willing to help a private test costs about �30.00. To be honest vitamin D supplement is not that expensive so you might as well assume you're low and start getting on it the moment the nights draw in.
Vitamin C: OK so we should all be getting lots of it from our diet in the form of fruit and vegetables right? Or are you avoiding your rainbow plate of 5-a-day? Anyway the body does not store vitamin C and it is very important in strengthening the immune system so during the winter months, even if you are well in to your fruit and veg and smoothies, why not try 500mg a day as a supplement.
High-Quality Sleep and Plenty of It: pay attention to how you are sleeping. If you aren't getting enough GOOD QUALITY sleep you'll be at increased risk from colds and other bugs. Your immune system is strongest when you're not sleep-deprived.
Regular exercise is a crucial strategy for increasing your resistance to illness by boosting your immune system. One study found that people who exercised regularly (30 minutes five or more days a week) cut their risk of having a cold by close to 50 percent. What's more, in the event they did catch a cold, their symptoms were much less severe than among those who did not exercise.
However, if you're already feeling sick, don't overdo it. Over-exercising can actually place more stress on your body, which can suppress your immune system - and you don't want that either. Just go for a walk if you are coming down with a cold, or simply tone down your regular workout. Then again any rise in body temperature will help to kill off any unwanted invaders so some exercise is likely to be beneficial. Your Great Aunt Molly's remedy of going to bed with 6 hot water bottles and 'sweating it out' is not daft - providing you stay hydrated.
Emotional stressors also weaken your immune system. Find ways to manage your stress and ask for help if you are feeling overwhelmed, especially around exam time.
Washing your hands frequently is one of the easiest ways to wipe out germs and viruses and reduce your chances of becoming sick. One report found that regular hand washing may be even more effective than drugs in preventing the spread of respiratory viruses, such as flu.
When you wash, plain soap and water will do. It can be a mistake to use antibacterial cleansers as their widespread use is leading to strains of resistant bacteria or "superbugs". Antibacterial soaps are no more effective than regular soaps and one study found people who used antibacterial soaps and cleansers developed cough, runny nose, sore throat, fever, vomiting, diarrhoea, and other symptoms just as often as people who used products that did not contain antibacterial ingredients.
To protect yourself from getting colds you need to know how colds are contracted in the first place. Basically you catch them from somebody who already has one. Being coughed or sneezed over spreads a virus as a 'droplet infection'. However new scientific thinking says that you as likely to get one from hand-to-hand contact when someone with a cold blows their nose then shakes your hand or touches surfaces that you also touch. Cold viruses are sneeky little suckers who can live on pens, computer keyboards, coffee mugs, and other random objects for hours. The fact is that it's hard to avoid contact with such viruses during normal life.
If you feel yourself coming down with a cold or flu, avoid sugar, artificial sweeteners, or processed foods. Sugar can suppress your immune system, which needs to be ramped up in order to combat an emerging infection. You'll want to avoid it like the plague, and this includes sugar in the form of fruit juice and even grains (which break down as sugar in your body).
Don't eat too much food at any one meal time - your digestive system needs energy to process food and if you have a cold your immune system will also be fighting for energy to make you well, so by having smaller meals you will put less stress on the digestive system and allow your immune system to man-up.
Garlic is a potent antimicrobial that kills bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Ideally this should be in fresh form, taken raw and crushed with a spoon just before eating. However, if this is a step too far, add crushed garlic to your food just before the end of the cooking time. At DW we're huge fans of garlic - and do you know what, we've yet to have a vampire in the office so that obviously works too.
So plan to stick loads of garlic into a menu that includes spicy, warming chillies, curries and casseroles also packed with herbs and spices with high ORAC (Antioxidant levels) scores - such as turmeric, oregano, cinnamon, and cloves. For good luck add mushrooms, especially Reishi, Shiitake, and Maitake - you can find these varieties in most supermarkets - that contain beta glucans (which have immune-enhancing properties).
We don't want to sound like your Great Aunt Fanny but few things help a cold more than chicken soup. Chicken contains a natural amino acid called cysteine, which can thin the mucus in your lungs and make it less sticky so you can get rid of it more easily. Sounds yeuch but if there is ever time to demonstrate some good old British phlegm this is it.
In general processed foods are to be avoided so canned soups won't work as well as the homemade version. For best results, make up a fresh batch yourself (or get your Great Aunt Fanny to) and make the soup hot and spicy with plenty of pepper. The spices will trigger a sudden release of watery fluids in your mouth, throat, and lungs, which will help thin down the respiratory mucus so it's easier to cough. Lovely!
Make sure you are drinking plenty of fresh, pure water. According to the Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine in the colder months we should only put warm fluids in our body so you might want to keep the water at room temperature. Water is essential for the optimal function of every system in your body, and will help with nose stuffiness and loosening secretions. You should drink enough water so that your pee is a light, pale yellow.
Warming Teas - use your regular tea without milk and add ginger, cloves, allspice and cinnamon - strain before drinking
Hot water with lemon and honey - try to buy Manuka honey if you can afford it - it's expensive but has great antimicrobial properties. If you have a sore throat try sucking a spoonful as slowly as possible as it will help to fight the infection. (It's also great for those horrible mouth ulcers - again try to hold the honey over the ulcer for as long as possible.)
Supplements can be beneficial for colds, but they should be used only as a short term fix to the lifestyle recommendations above. Some of the more helpful options for cold (and flu), above and beyond the essential vitamins D and C are listed below;
Zinc: according to recent research, when taken within one day of the first cold symptoms, zinc can reduce the duration of your cold by about 24 hours and reduce the severity of your symptoms. You can buy zinc lozenges from most health food stores and even some chemists. Take as directed.
Vitamin C: If you’ve got a cold it’s worth upping your Vitamin C intake. It’s a very potent antioxidant; use a natural form such as acerola, which contains associated micronutrients. You can take several grams every hour till you are better, unless you start developing loose stools (pooh).
Propolis: a bee resin and one of the most broad-spectrum antimicrobial compounds in the world, propolis is also the richest source of caffeic acid and apigenin, two very important compounds that aid in immune response and even fight cancer.
Oregano Oil: The higher the carvacrol concentration, the more effective it is. Carvacrol is the most active antimicrobial agent in oregano oil.
Echinacea: There are many herbs to choose from but the one with the greatest amount of scientific support is Echinacea. Best taken as a tincture widely available, I like the one made by Vogel, take 2-4 ml 3 times a day during the course of a cold. It can also be taken for 6-8 weeks at the start of winter as an immune boost.
Olive leaf extract: Ancient Egyptians and Mediterranean cultures used it for a variety of health purposes, and it is widely known as a natural, non-toxic immune system builder. You could take this for 6-8 weeks at the start of the winter months to give your immune system a boost. (Available from health food stores.)