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Every year, millions of Americans are hit by cold, flu, and other respiratory infections. While the common cold will rarely cause serious complications, the flu and other infections—such as Legionnaire’s, pneumococcus, and mycoplasma—can lead to severe and potentially life-threatening complications, especially in the young, the elderly, and the chronically sick. So what cold and flu prevention measures can you take to protect yourself from the inevitable round of infections this year?
How Common Cold and Flu Infections Spread
The infections that cause respiratory issues are usually spread by one of the following methods:
- Airborne droplets spread infection when we cough, sneeze, or even yawn. Droplets can spread up to 17 feet during a powerful sneeze, according to a fascinating experiment on MythBusters.
- By saliva during kissing, shared cups, or cutlery.
- Contaminated surfaces such as a doorknob or towel.
- By skin-to-skin contact during a handshake or hug.
- Contaminated water sources. In the case of Legionnaires’ disease a respiratory infection that mimics flu and occasionally hits the headlines with an outbreak in an institution.
It is thought that some viruses that cause colds can survive on indoor, hard surfaces for up to a week, but their ability to cause infection declines rapidly with time. On handkerchiefs or towels, they can potentially survive up to four hours; on skin, they can survive for up to an hour.
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Prevention Is Better Than Cure
This all sounds rather bleak, but don’t despair. There are plenty of actions you can take to reduce your risk of the common cold, flu, and other respiratory infections. Physicians at Weill Cornell Medical College recommend the following steps.
1. Consider getting yourself vaccinated against flu and pneumococcal pneumonia in the fall or early winter. A vaccination is especially important if you’re in these risk groups:
- Asthma or other chronic lung diseases such as COPD.
- Neurological and neurodevelopmental disorders.
- Heart diseases like congestive heart failure, coronary artery disease, and congestive cardiac failure.
- Chronic diseases of the blood, endocrine system (such as diabetes mellitus), kidney, liver, and immune system.
- Those who are very overweight.
- Pregnant women.
- Adults 65 years and older.
- Children over the age of six months.
Be warned, though, that these vaccines are by no means a guarantee. Dr Andrew Pavia of the University of Utah School of Medicine said of the flu vaccine in 2015, “It’s a mediocre vaccine, it’s 65 percent efficacious in an average year, and it doesn’t work as well in children under age 2 years or in the elderly as it does in healthier patients.”
2. Stay home when you’re sick. This will speed your recovery and reduce the risk of spreading the flu, cold, and other infections.
3. Cover your mouth and nose, especially when you cough or sneeze. It’s amazing how far those droplets can spread. Sneezing into your elbow is the best approach. Sneezing into the hand or a handkerchief is not effective for reducing spread.
4. Clean your hands. Wash your hands often with soap and water or alcohol-based hand cleaners, especially after you cough or sneeze.
5. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. Infection can enter your mucous membranes that way.
6. Avoid close contact (6 feet or less) as much as possible with people who are sick: No hugs, kisses, or handshakes with an infected individual.
7. Antiviral medication can be used as a preventative measure in some situations—with at-risk people who have been in contact with a confirmed case within the past 36 hours, for example, or when there is an outbreak in a nursing home.
The Key to Common Cold and Flu Prevention: Boost Your Immune System
It’s highly likely that you will come into contact with respiratory infections in the coming months, but if you have a strong immune system, you may not get ill, or if you do, you’ll fight it off quickly. Boosting the immune system is particularly important for people who are elderly or chronically ill.
One of possible reasons flu is so common in January is that people naturally begin to overindulge in unhealthy food and neglect their health over the winter holiday period. So make sure you give your body:
- A healthy diet. A diet rich in fresh vegetables and fruits reduces harmful free radicals and inflammation and boosts the immune system. Diets high in processed foods, sugar, and saturated fats do the opposite, meaning that when the flu and other infections are going around, you’re more likely to catch an infection and get ill. The occasional overindulgence is okay, but make sure you’re getting plenty of fruits and vegetables to counteract some of the “goodies.” One fascinating study showed that drinking freshly squeezed orange juice after a fast-food meal counteracted the harmful inflammatory changes.
- Probiotics. Taking regular probiotic supplements may boost immunity to flu and other respiratory infections. A 2015 review by the Cochrane Collaboration reported, “Probiotics were found to be better than placebo in reducing the number of participants experiencing episodes of acute URTI (upper respiratory tract infection) by about 47 percent and the duration of an episode of acute URTI by about 1.89 days. Probiotics may slightly reduce antibiotic use and cold-related school absence.”
- Zinc. Many people develop a zinc deficiency as they get older, and this impairs immune function and increases the risk for acquiring infection. Zinc is found in many foods, including seafood, beef, wheat germ, spinach, pumpkin seeds, cashews, cocoa powder, chickpeas, and mushrooms. Taking a zinc supplement may be of benefit if you have been exposed to a common cold or flu or other respiratory infection. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) reports that “Zinc taken orally (by mouth) may help to treat colds, but it can cause side effects and interact with medicines…. Oral zinc helps to reduce the length of colds when taken within 24 hours after symptoms start.” The use of intranasal zinc is discouraged.
- Exercise. Experts at the U.S. National Library of Medicine explain that exercise may boost immunity by:
- Flushing out bacteria out of the lungs and airways.
- Causing changes in antibodies and white blood cells (WBC).
- Raising body temperature, which may help the body fight infection better.
- Slow down the release of stress hormones, which lower immunity.
However, they warn “Heavy, long-term exercise (such as marathon running and intense gym training) could actually cause harm.”
- Stress management. The American Psychological Association explains that chronic psychological stress and depression affects the immune system. “Depression hurts immunity and hurts the body’s ability to fight infection,” according to the organization. “Managing stress, especially chronic stress, may help people to fight germs…. Social ties may indirectly strengthen immunity.” Techniques may include hypnosis, relaxation training, meditation, and spending time with positive people.
- Sleep well. A 2017 study from University of Washington Health Sciences found that lack of sleep has a detrimental effect on immune health. Aim to get seven or eight hours of restful sleep each night if you want a fighting chance against common cold and flu infection.
- Quit smoking. If you’re a smoker, you’ve heard this many times before: Smoking is bad for your health. Smoking increases your risk of catching, getting complications, and dying from the flu and other respiratory infections. See our article “How to Prevent Smoking Diseases—and Add Years to Your Life.”
- Alternative therapies. Many alternative practitioners and their patients swear by a whole host of therapies, but there’s a lack of strong evidence that they are effective in preventing the common cold, flu, and other respiratory infections. This does not mean that these don’t work—just that the evidence is weak. Therapies include ginseng, Chinese herbs, ginger, garlic, Echinacea, elderberry, green tea, vitamin C, and vitamin D. If you want to try alternative therapies, check that there are no interactions with other medications you are taking.