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Cold Comfort

In the long dark months of winter, it can seem as though the days of coughs, colds, sniffles and sneezes will never end. There are no shortage of potions and pills to buy, but what simple and trustworthy measures can we take to flu-proof ourselves and our families?

Colds and the flu are the main villains of the winter season. Adults succumb to two to four colds on average every year, while children suffer through six to eight. It’s no surprise that the common cold alone is estimated to be responsible for 40 percent of all missed workdays. Antibiotics shouldn’t be prescribed because colds and flu are viral infections, against which antibiotics are useless. Pharmacy and health food store shelves are also stocked with natural and pharmaceutical remedies promising to prevent and reduce the severity of symptoms – but only some products have scientifically proven benefits. Here’s the low-down on seven oft-recommended remedies.

Zinc

It can protect tender skin at the beach, and Zinc is probably also your best bet for treating a cold, and possibly even preventing one altogether. A trace element found naturally in the body and unprocessed foods, zinc has been found by various studies to reduce the length of colds by up to three days, as well as limiting the severity of the cold. You can find zinc lozenges and supplements from most health food stores, but there are also plenty of foods naturally rich in zinc, such as wheat germ, pumpkin seeds, pine nuts and shellfish. Be wary of zinc nasal sprays, as there is evidence to suggest a nasal spray might permanently destroy the sense of smell.

Vitamin C

If there were such a thing as a silver lining when it comes to colds, surely a top contender would be the delicious hot lemon and honey drink. With the juice of one lemon providing 88 percent of an adult’s daily recommended intake of vitamin C, the classic lemon drink has to be good for your cold, right? Well, partially right. As a preventative measure – that is, taken daily for several weeks or months – vitamin C has been shown to moderately reduce the length and severity of colds, with the best responses occurring in children. However, recent analyses of studies where vitamin C was administered after the onset of symptoms of a cold show it to be no more effective than a placebo. Naturopath Eric Bakker calls vitamin C the “archetypal immune booster” and suggests supplementing your diet with it all winter, in conjunction with other wellness routines. Vitamin C may be taken safely up to 2000mg a day for most adults, but it is recommended that you consult with a doctor before taking anything over 1000mg a day, especially if you have kidney problems. Fresh fruit is an excellent source of vitamin C – particularly kiwifruit – which is high in vitamin C and vitamin E as well as carotenoid antioxidants, compounds that appear to boost natural levels of resistance.

 Echinacea

Based on conventional herbal wisdom, the herb echinacea is often the first response treatment to symptoms of a cold. A 2007 analysis published in the reputable Lancet Infectious Diseases journal concluded echinacea reduces the chance of contracting a cold by 58 percent and the duration of the cold by a day or so. However, the results of other studies vary widely. Echinacea raises properdin levels, a chemical believed to activate the part of the immune system responsible for defending the body against virus and bacteria attacks. Not all species of echinacea are created equal, with the best results found for the aerial (above-ground) parts of echinacea purpurea than other varieties. And care is advised if taking large does, as echinacea is a potential allergen.

Garlic

Garlic, and its active compound allicin, has been intensely studied for its potential cardiovascular and anti-cancer properties, but surprisingly, little has been done to shed light on its effect on the common cold. Conventional wisdom points to raw garlic as one of the most potent cures, and it is known to have antimicrobial and antiviral properties. Most reports of garlic’s curative effect on the cold point to one 2001 study of 146 volunteers who received either an allicin supplement or a placebo, which was taken once daily for 12 weeks. After the trial, the allicin group had less than half the occurrence of colds than the placebo group, and around one-third the total days of sickness. The volunteers were taking supplements containing 180mg of allicin, while a typical clove of garlic contains around 4-5mg. At that dosage, it’s not surprising that a major reported side effect was a lot of ‘malodourous belching’!

Chicken soup

Yes, in the quest for a cure for the common cold, scientists have even investigated whether grandma’s chicken soup recipe really is the remedy it’s believed to be. The investigations may have been undertaken in a tongue-and-cheek way, but there is some evidence that chicken soup may have a slight anti-inflammatory effect on the eater. Rather than being a miracle cure, it’s likely that the real benefit of chicken soup comes in its provision of much-needed hydration and nutrition. And if that pot of hearty chicken soup is brought around by a concerned friend, the positive effect can only be enhanced.

Honey

Honey is a natural cough suppressant, one which studies have suggested is equally effective as dextromethorphan – the active ingredient in over-the-counter cough suppressants like Robitussin. Children age two and older can be given up to two teaspoons of honey at bedtime to reduce coughing and hopefully improve sleep overall for the wee ones. However, due to the risk of infant botulism, never give honey to a child under two.

Natural immunity

Above all, a healthy immune system will prevent cold and flu better than any on-the-spot remedy. To keep your immune system robust, naturopath Eric Bakker suggests maintaining a healthy diet that includes a wide range of fresh foods, effective stress management to keep cortisol levels balanced, reasonable daily exercise and plenty of vitamin C throughout winter.

While some of these natural remedies might not ‘cure’ or prevent colds and flu outright, things like hot lemon and honey drinks can help to lessen or relieve symptoms. Hot lemon drinks, chicken broth, water and juice all loosen congestion and keep you hydrated, while a saltwater gargle can temporarily relieve a sore throat.

Cold busters – Three simple tips for staying clear of colds and flu:

  • When you have a cold, it’s much better to help prevent infection spreading by using disposable tissues rather than old-fashioned hankies. Choose tissues made with FSC-certified pulp to minimise the environmental impact – and as viruses can live for several hours on everyday surfaces, chuck any soggy ones away immediately. You can go back to the more eco-friendly hanky when you’re feeling better!
  • Wash your hands frequently, especially before preparing food or eating, and after coughing, sneezing, visiting the bathroom or changing nappies. The Ministry of Health recommends washing with soap for at least 20 seconds or using an alcohol-based rub.
  • Try to stay at least a metre away from other sick people. If that’s impossible, washing your hands and trying to avoid touching your eyes, lips and nose will help minimise your risk.

Jumpy about the jab? 

It’s not everyone’s choice, but statistically speaking, the flu jab is an effective way to reduce the chance of contracting influenza. Each shot contains inactive fragments of virus taken from the three most common strains of the year; this year, one included strain is to protect against the H1N1 Swine flu that became pandemic last winter. Because the injection contains only inactive virus fragments, the flu jab won’t infect you, but it will allow your body to create the protective antibodies it needs. Then again, because flu viruses are always mutating you’ll need a new jab next year.

In the 1970s there was concern that the flu vaccine might be associated with an increase in the occurrence of Guillain–Barré Syndrome, a nervous system disorder that can lead to paralysis. But according to the American health agency, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), results indicate only a very minor increase – around 0.8 cases per 1 million vaccinations. For comparison, they say, 750 million adults annually are hospitalised worldwide from influenza, much of it preventable by vaccinations. Ironically, the risk of contracting Guillain-Barré Syndrome also increases after contracting the flu. What this means, for many people, is that the slight risk of the vaccination is outweighed by its benefit.

It takes about two weeks for your body to be fully protected after a flu shot, but after that, the Ministry of Health says the vaccine is 80 percent effective in preventing infection in healthy adults under age 65. The flu can still be deadly, especially to children and the elderly – and in cases of sudden high fever (38-40 degrees) or another chronic condition, like asthma, diabetes or heart disease.

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