By Joseph Maroon, MD, FACS
Having a cold or the flu is often sheer misery. Often we neglect the proper nutrition our bodies need to get well again. Because having a cold or the flu is such an inconvenience as well as a potentially serious health risk, avoiding it through better nutritional choices is a good way to stay healthy. Adequate nutritional support also has the potential to both reduce the duration and severity of symptoms.
Adults can look forward to having a cold at least 2 to 4 times a year and children up to 8 to 10 times a year. Although the common cold has no cure typically it will run its course in 2 to 5 days. The old adage, “feed a cold and starve a fever”, is good advice if you are nauseated but for those that can eat food the nutrients they contain are critical for the healing process and should not be missed.
What Nutrition Can Do For You
Nutrient-rich foods found in fruits, vegetables, along with complex carbohydrates for energy are critical for your diet if you are sick. In hundreds of published studies researchers have concluded that most cold symptoms are caused by an inflammatory response activated by a viral infection invading the body. Cold treatments, including foods, can reduce virus induced inflammation and can be effective method to reduce both the severity and duration of a cold.
In 2000 researchers from University of Nebraska Medical Center investigated the most often recommended treatment for a cold – chicken soup – to see if it could actually work improve cold symptoms. They tested the effect of chicken soup to reduce virus induced inflammation and found that chicken soup significantly inhibited white blood cell’s action to stimulate the inflammatory response and thereby reduce cold symptoms. Chicken soup is an excellent food of choice if you are ill. In addition to its anti-inflammatory effects chicken soup can hydrate, replace electrolytes and provide essential vitamins and minerals you need when you are ill. The steam from the hot soup along with hot and spicy foods has also been found to help open up the sinuses and reduce congestion in cold and flu sufferers.
Citrus fruits like oranges contain powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory molecules called bioflavonoids. Citrus bioflavonoids also have anti-viral, anti-inflammatory and anti-allergy properties. Also available as dietary supplements, bioflavonoids have been shown to help fight infections, prevent free radical damage and reduce the severity of cold symptoms.
Foods rich in beta-carotene and vitamins C and E, which are found in many fruits and vegetables, have been shown to reduce the inflammatory reaction associated with colds and help to reduce symptoms. Since most Americans don’t eat the recommended 5 serving of fruits and vegetables a day, especially when you have a cold, supplements can be used to get the recommended amounts.
Maintaining adequate hydration and nutrition during a viral illness will boost your body’s strength and virus fighting capacity. I will also help to reduce both the duration and intensity of the illness. Plenty of bed rest, sleep, decongestants, saline nasal spray and gargling with warm salt water or using lozenges can help relieve symptoms and help to make you feel better. Taking aspirin or acetaminophen can help with fever and achiness in adults. Children under 18 year should not take aspirin during episodes of fever-causing illnesses because of a risk of developing a serious complication known as Reye ’s syndrome.
Fight the Flu with a Flu Shot
The flu, like the common cold, is caused by a wide variety of viruses, but unlike colds, vaccines are still the mainstay to prevent this illness. Governmental agencies typically make an educated guess year to year as to which types of flu viruses will be dominant. Since the influenza virus mutates year to year a new vaccine must be made annually. Based on vaccines virus selection people who are immunize by a flu shot will typically have less severe flu symptoms if they become infected with the flu.
In some years however the flu virus can mutate after the vaccines are made and the incidence of flu will spike. The flu can be a killer especially for the elderly. Studies done by the CDC (Center of Disease Control) estimate as many as 61,000 flu related deaths in 2017-18 occured in the US.
Don’t Want to Get Sick
Staying healthy during the flu and cold season can be a challenge. Those who work in hospitals, are over 65 years, daycare workers or even parents with small children will be at the greatest risk for the colds and flu virus exposure. There is almost universal agreement that most colds and flus are passed along person to person. She touched you; you touched him; so on, and the virus takes a ride on your hands, face, sneeze and cough particulates and literally can travel around the world.
Some viruses can live on surfaces for up to 48 hours, but viruses typically can’t do harm on our skin. A virus must make it to moist tissue like the mucous membranes in our nose, eyes and mouth. Studies have shown most of us touch our face up to 16 times per hour. By directly transferring the cold or flu virus to our face we inoculate ourselves and virus can now spread like wildfire.
Here are some simple tips to help avoid contact with the flu and cold virus:
- Wash your hands frequently with soap and water
- Avoiding touching for face, eyes and month
- Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze
- Try to avoid close contact with sick people
- Avoid smoky places
- Avoid areas of low humidity (such as planes)
Boosting Your Immune Function
If your immune system is not functioning properly you are at increased risk of infections from viruses and bacteria, you also are more susceptible to diseases, such as autoimmune diseases, like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis and even certain cancers. The two major pillars to booster our immune function are proper exercise and adequate nutrition.
Regular exercise has been shown to improve the immune system and reduce the risk of colds. In a study that evaluated over 500 men and women ages 20-70 years investigators at the University of South Carolina found those who did regular moderate to vigorous exercise had a 20% lower risk of upper respiratory infections compared to the sedentary group.
There are a number of dietary supplements, vitamins and minerals which have shown significant capacity to prevent and reduce the severity of cold related viruses. Some should be considered as cold prevention and taken daily while others work best when used at the time cold symptoms first appear. Here is a list of some that have shown the most promise in both these areas.
Vitamin D, or the sunshine vitamin, is essential for good health and a properly functioning immune system. Because vitamin D levels are particularly low during the winter (darker) months, higher latitudes populations and in dark skinned peoples maintaining adequate levels is difficult. In a study completed in 2009, researchers from Harvard and University of Colorado Medical Schools investigated approximately 19,000 people who developed upper respiratory tract infections (URTI). They found a direct correlation between those people with the most colds having the lowest levels of vitamin D in there body and those with the highest levels having the fewest.
Zinc is a mineral that can inhibit rhinovirus (the family of viruses associated with the common cold) and is often purported as a very good natural treatment for cold sufferers. Unfortunately up until now scientific evidence for zinc’s benefits has only been marginally in several smaller studies done in people. This changed study in July 2012 with a larger study that evaluated 17 trials involving a total of 2,121 people comparing a placebo those who received zinc tablets after getting an URTI. This study found those treated with zinc were able to recover over 1 ½ days sooner than those who did not take the zinc. A similar study in children in 2019 showed similar results.
Echinacea is a flowering plant found in the daisy family that has been used for centuries for medicinal purposes. Echinacea’s most common use has been as a herbal treatment for the prevention of colds and flu. Although commonly used and advocated the scientific proof of its prophylactic efficacy was limited and not considered conclusive. In August 2012 researchers from the United Kingdom evaluated over 750 people in what was the largest study to date investigating the effectiveness of echinacea to prevent colds.
Over a 4 month period the scientist compared the number of colds that occurred in those taking the echinacea supplement compared to those taking a placebo pill. Here is a list of their findings:
Echinacea reduced the
• total number of cold episodes
• total number of cumulative episode days
• total number of pain-killer medicated episodes
• inhibited virally confirmed colds
• showed maximal effects on recurrent infections,
• preventive effects increased with therapy compliance and adherence to the protocol
• did not have any greater reported side effects than the placebo group
Over all this these researchers concluded that echinacea as a supplement was safe and was shown to provide significant therapeutic benefits.
Getting your next cold may be a close as your next handshake. Whether we can avoid a cold completely or not may not be completely in our power. Use this tips and encourage others around you as well. With the right amount of preparation, prevention and nutritional help you may have more power than you thought to keep yourself healthy this winter.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease