Cold and Flu Season: 8 Facts & Myths
By Dr. Amy Whittington, Trilogy’s Naturopathic Physician
It happens every year: the chilly weather, the traditions of fall and winter, and the common cold. We’ve all been there. You are fine one day and the next day you are sneezing, with a cough, stuffy or runny nose, and fatigue. It is estimated that we pass around approximately 200 different viruses through the season, and avoiding all of them can seem like winning the lottery. What also arrives with cold and flu season is a myriad of theories about how to avoid and treat those pesky illnesses. Some are fact, others are pure fiction. Here’s a guide to hopefully help you through cold and flu season so that you stay well.
1. Fact or Myth? A cold and the flu are the same thing.
Myth. Technically, a cold can be caused by a number of different viruses, and is diagnosed by its collection of symptoms including congestion, runny nose, cough, or sneeze. Flus are caused by the Influenza virus, and tend as a group to cause more severe, but similar symptoms to a cold, often also with fever and chills. We will often treat the two similarly because of their shared symptoms, using decongestants, etc. The flu is more likely to lead to pneumonia, making it a more aggressive illness. Many people will confuse the flu with gastroenteritis, a separate, but equally pesky group of viruses, which cause stomach upset.
2. Fact or Myth? The cold temperature makes you more susceptible to catching a cold.
This is another myth. Viruses and our ability to catch them, have nothing to do with the temperature outside, and yet it seems that as the temperature plummets, our cold symptoms increase. Most viruses are passed around through vapor droplets that are sneezed or coughed by an infected person and eventually inhaled by the next victim. The coincidence that we get more colds during the winter is probably because we are indoors more and closer to one another because it is cold outside. Throw in holiday shopping, traveling on planes, and parties, and you have “flu and cold season.”
3. Fact or Myth? Chicken soup can help to cure a cold.
Fact. Sort of. Common colds are other viral illnesses are self-limited and typically only last a few days, so technically speaking, they cure themselves. No treatment, whether it is an herb, supplement, food, or pharmaceutical can ever really claim to be a “cure.” However, some treatments have been shown to decrease symptoms associated with the cold or shorten its duration. Chicken soup, as your grandmother noted, has the power to decrease your symptoms, namely with a naturally occurring component called n-acetyl-cysteine (NAC). NAC is an amino acid that acts as a mucolytic. This means it thins mucous to relieve congestion or cough, and in fact, NAC is the active ingredient in some cough medications.
4. Fact or Myth? Bring on the orange juice to get rid of that cold faster.
Myth. Sort of. It is true that Vitamin C has been shown to decrease the duration of a cold (studies for preventing are less promising). Vitamin C is also a natural anti-histamine, and as such can decrease some of the sneezing and watery eyes that can often torture you during a head-cold. However, fruit juices offer a lot of sugar alongside a relatively small amount of Vitamin C, and that sugar actually acts to slow down your immune response, so skip the juice and go right for the Vitamin C in supplement form.
5. Fact or Myth? Rest is the best cure.
Fact. It has been established that a proper amount of rest is effective at both making it less likely that you will catch a cold, and at shortening its duration. Most of us should be striving for 7-8 hours per night, with more rest needed for the teens in our lives. Resting during a cold helps us all, because it means that you are likely at home, instead of outside passing around your infected vapors.
6. Fact or Myth? If you have a strong immune system, you won’t catch a cold.
Myth. Whether we can boost our immune system enough to not ever react to viral antigens is a debated topic. Consider this, it is estimated that when viruses are intentionally introduced into nasal passages (in a study) 95% of those that are infected will develop an immune response. It is unknown why 5% don’t react at all. Of the 95% that do have an immune reaction, 75% will be symptomatic. It is also unknown why 25% will not show symptoms, but instead have an asymptomatic immune reaction. But remember this: the symptoms of a cold (runny nose, sneezing, cough, etc.) are caused by your immune system in an effort to push the virus out of the body. It is postulated that an immune reaction without these symptoms might actually show a weak immune system, not a strong one. In other words, if you never get a cold, it could be that your immune system doesn’t put up much of a fight. Again, 95% of us will get a cold when we are exposed to it, and 75% of us will have noticeable symptoms, so the best defense against catching a cold is not to build up your immune system, but to avoid the exposure. Make sure that you wash your hands often, cover your coughs and sneezes, and try to avoid others who have viral illnesses.
7. Fact or Myth? Always feed a cold.
Myth. Sort of. There is no evidence that we should just eat during a cold, but on the other hand, if you are taking in high quality foods like fruits, vegetables, and chicken soup, then you are consuming nutrients that should help you to feel better and improve more quickly. Vegetables like onions and garlic have anti-microbial activity, and fruits will give you more of those bioflavonoids like vitamin C to help fight the virus and decrease your symptoms. Remember whole fruit, unlike juices, won’t give you a blood sugar spike to deplete your immune function.
8. Fact or Myth? You can boost your immune system.
Nobody knows. The immune system is a highly complex system, and as stated before, there is no way to tell if we have properly “boosted” its function. However, some nutrients seem to decrease duration and severity, so they are often listed as boosters. Like Vitamin C, zinc may also help cut the number of days you’re sick. In a study in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, adults who took zinc were better about 3 days sooner than those who didn’t. Mushrooms, like Shiitake and Maitake, taken in supplement form can also shorten duration, and herbs like olive leaf extract and oil of oregano are thought to have anti-microbial action.
So the moral of the story is this…
Fact: You might get a cold this season. Fact: You can decrease your chance of that cold by not being around sick people, by washing your hands, and by getting plenty of rest. Fact: You should eat healthy food to prevent and while you have the cold, get more rest, and keep supplements simple (zinc, Vitamin C, and maybe an immune blend). Keep it simple, and in a few days, you’ll be well. That’s a fact.
Stay healthy & be well!
– Amy Whittingon, NMD