Even though we can “catch cold” at any time of the year, it is that time of year when it seems everyone around us has a cold or the flu. This is a great time to take stock of our immune system and make sure we are providing the support our body needs to remain strong and healthy. We are constantly exposed to hundreds of different strains of viruses that are capable of making us sick. These viruses are transmitted hand-to-hand (touching nose and eyes, then touching others or surfaces) and aerosol (coughing and sneezing).
Have you ever asked yourself why you get frequent colds or wonder how you managed to stay healthy when everyone else around you is sick? The fact that we can be exposed frequently to hundreds of viruses but still only “catch cold” once or twice a year, on average, implies that getting sick is less about exposure and more about a decrease in our immune function. Interestingly, Oriental Medicine believes the energy of the respiratory system is connected to grief and the ability to accept change. It is very common for people to get colds during a time of change such as a move or starting a new job or shortly after the loss of a loved one. I feel that when we get a cold, it is a time to recognize that our body is in “dis-ease” and pay attention to not only our physical body but our emotional and spiritual bodies as well. What we do to heal ourselves on these levels can sometimes be more profound than any herb or supplement that we take.
The symptoms of a cold can include a general sense of not being well, fatigue, achiness, nasal congestion, sneezing, fever, headache, sore or dry throat, and hoarseness. Usually a cold will start with a watery nasal discharge and sneezing. As the virus is killed, nasal secretions usually thicken with mucus, white blood cells, and dead organisms, and the nasal passages may feel swollen.
Frequent hand-washing is highly important as most studies show that we are more likely to become infected with the virus from direct contact with a surface or person with the virus than from breathing in the virus. However, a strong immune function is our number one defense against catching cold. Ensure you are getting enough sleep and participating in activities that stimulate the immune system such as gentle aerobic exercise, yoga, meditation, tai chi, and other relaxing activities.
Reducing the intake of sugar and excess alcohol consumption can enhance your immune system. Eating healthy, balanced meals with adequate protein intake can’t be underestimated. If you get more than 1-2 colds a year, consider taking supplements to provide your body with the nutrients that are well known to improve your immune system. Vitamins and minerals that promote, improve, and enhance your immune system include vitamin A, carotenes, vitamin C, vitamin E, B-vitamins, iron, zinc, and selenium. A good, quality multivitamin can provide these in a convenient manner. The thymus is responsible for viral immunity. There are “glandulars”, which are extracts from usually bovine organs, on the market that may boost spleen and thymus function, thus your immunity.
In a person with a healthy immune system, a cold shouldn’t last more than 3-4 days. Rest, preferably bed rest, is one of the best things you can do to help your cold go away quickly without complications. During sleep, rest, relaxation, or meditation, immune-enhancing compounds are released and immune functions are greatly increased. Taking a day or two off work to heal not only can speed the recovery process for you, but can also prevent the spread of the virus to others.
Things you can do if you “catch cold”:
- Drink large amount of fluids that include water, diluted vegetable juices, soups, and herbal teas. Good hydration improves the function of white blood cells, moistens the respiratory tract and repels viral infection.
- Avoid sugar and alcohol, which depress immune function. Sugar (glucose) and vitamin C compete for transport sites into the white blood cells, and it is vitamin C, not sugar that helps heal a cold.
- Nasal lavage, using a sinus-rinse, Neti pot, or bulb syringe with a salt and water solution not only moistens nasal passages, but helps the body rid of mucus and debris. To mix your own saline solution, mix ½ teaspoon sea or kosher salt per 1 cup of water.
- There are several supplements and herbs that speed recovery, but do not often give immediate relief of symptoms. Natural therapies involve assisting the body process and healing the cold instead of suppressing the disease. For the cold virus, zinc is probably the most potent supplement so far studied. Taking zinc lozenges every two to three hours while awake started on the onset of a cold will reduce the severity and length of your illness.
- There are many studies that show vitamin C decreases the severity and duration of cold symptoms. The recommended dose is 500mg – 1000mg every two hours, reducing dose if diarrhea develops. Vitamin C enhances immune function and exerts antihistamine, antiviral, and antibacterial effects.
- Short-term uses of vitamin A can boost the immune system by healing the tissues of the respiratory tract and increasing resistance against infection. High doses of vitamin A can cause birth defects in pregnant women, so it is not recommended to take in women who are pregnant or sexually active women who are not practicing birth control. The dose during a cold is 15,000-25,000 IU per day, up to four days only.
- There are hundreds of studies demonstrating the benefits of Echinacea. Echinacea stimulates the gobbling up of the virus by different immune cells and increases the mobility of white blood cells. The dose for Echinacea is 325-650 mg of the freeze dried plant (capsule form) or 2-4ml three times a day of a 1:5 tincture or 1:1 fluid extract for no longer than 2 weeks. Taking Echinacea for prolonged periods can overstimulate the immune system.
I wish everyone a healthy and well winter. But if the cold “catches” you, doing some or all these measures can dramatically speed your recovery. Most people who get a cold should not need to seek medical care. However, if your symptoms last longer than a week or you develop shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, productive cough, or a fever sustained over 102 degrees, you should contact or see a health care provider.