So, what can you do to not get sick? That’s a question primary care doctors hear daily in the office. Let’s take a look at where the evidence lies.
Myth: Vitamin C
Perhaps the best-studied supplement for cold prevention is vitamin C. Unless you are a marathoner or heading to extremely cold temperatures, taking vitamin C has no more benefit than taking a placebo for the prevention of colds. I know. I’m sorry.
A dietary supplement that can help is zinc. Administered within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms, zinc can reduce the duration of common cold symptoms in otherwise healthy people. If you feel a cold coming on, take zinc lozenges (at a zinc dosage of up to 75 mg per day) to shorten the length of your cold. There’s a minor downside though: folks taking zinc lozenges often report a bad taste and nausea.
Some folks believe that probiotics enhance the immune system’s protective response against viruses. Results from clinical studies are mixed, but generally speaking, the use of probiotics has not been shown to significantly help prevent colds.
Fact: Hand washing
The best way to prevent the cold or flu is to not allow the virus to get into your system in the first place. Numerous studies have shown that hand washing and using alcohol-based hand disinfectants help prevent colds. Do this.
In addition, during the cold and flu season (fall and winter), watch it with the shared objects at your office. A very cool recent study showed that the surfaces of office equipment—especially computer keyboards, mice and telephones—were more contaminated with a respiratory virus known as human parainfluenza virus than the surfaces of door handles and light switches. Ewwww.
Myth: Echinacea and ginseng
Some people propose that echinacea and ginseng increase the number of immune cells your body makes, which may in turn prevent the cold and flu. However, multiple trials on many different formulations of echinacea have not shown it to be better than placebo for preventing colds. Likewise, neither North American or Asian ginseng have been shown to reduce the risk of colds. Don’t bother.
We know that sleep deprivation suppresses your immune system, so if you’re looking to boost your immune system, try to get enough sleep. A recent study of 164 healthy men and women found that shorter sleep duration was associated with an increased susceptibility to the common cold. Obvious, I know, but get enough sleep.
Studies on exercise for the prevention of colds and flus are a mixed bag. One recent study looked at the risk of getting an upper respiratory tract infection, including the common cold and flu, in postmenopausal women who exercised. The study showed that for these women, 45 minutes of moderate intensity exercise five days a week reduced the risk of the common cold. However, it didn’t reduce the risk of upper respiratory infections overall. So, it’s a toss up. Exercise has many upsides and certainly doesn’t hurt, so go for it.
Fact: Flu vaccines
What does work for flu prevention? The flu vaccine. The flu vaccine can have multiple benefits in addition to preventing influenza. Several studies have documented a lower risk of hospitalization from all viral upper respiratory infections in folks who receive the annual influenza vaccine. Flu vaccine options include trivalent vaccines like Fluvirin and Afluria, and quadrivalent vaccines like FluMist and Flucelvax.
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