Okay, I’m tapping on the glass over my M.D. for this one because it’s cold season and if one more person recommends a supplement they swear will supercharge my immune system and stop my sniffles in their tracks I’m going to . . . write a blog post about it and find someone to pay me for my wisdom.
“But Ellen,” you say, “EVERYONE knows that when a cold strikes, you should take all the things to boost your immunity.” Right?
The more rotten your cold, the more evidence you have that your immune system is hitting on all cylinders. That congestion isn’t all about the mucous. In fact, it’s not even mostly about it. It’s about inflammation—leaky blood vessels bringing immune cell fighters and their deadly ammunition of cytokines to your nose and throat, thus swelling the tissues and making you feel miserable. See, your body takes a sort of scorched earth approach to fighting invaders. Inflammation is super effective at killing germs, but let’s just say it doesn’t care a snot about the collateral damage: your stuffy nose, watery eyes, and scratchy throat.
Colds are well, so common, that everyone thinks they know everything about them; enough so that they will dispense their unsolicited advice like wadded up tissues from the bottom of their purses. I’m not calling your Aunt Betty’s cat sitter a liar, I’m just saying she might not fully understand the science. Everyone has a success story for treatment because the course of the common cold is the perfect backdrop to make it seem like they’re working.
- Opportunity. There are over a billion colds suffered every year, and the same person can suffer more than one per season. This gives plenty of chances for people to “test” out their cures and seem to have them work every once in a while.
- Difference in virulence. There are over 200 viruses that cause colds and they are not all created equal. Less virulent or potent viruses produce colds that don’t last as long and don’t make you feel as rotten. Your milder cold has nothing to do with what you took. Rather it has everything to do with what strain you were infected with.
- Duration of infection. This has to do with virulence as discussed above, but bears some mention of its own. On average, a cold lasts 7 to 10 days, but that means the range of duration is anywhere from 3 to 18 days. So if last month you had an 18 day cold and this time you had a 5 day cold, you’re going to think that whatever you took made the difference.
- Number of colds per year. The number of colds you contract decreases as you get older. A child under 2 years of age can get as many as 8 to 10 colds per year because their immune system is “less experienced.” You don’t keep getting the same cold—your body has memory immune cells to stop what it has already seen—you keep getting fresh ones out of the hundreds lurking around. This means as you get older, there are just less “new” cold viruses out there that can bring you down. Your lack of illness has nothing to do with the vitamin horse pill you have choked down every morning for the past 10 years and everything to do with the odds.
Sooooo, what do you do? There is no cure. It’s really about alleviating the symptoms. No medication—even a natural, herbal one—is without side effects and special indications for people with pre-existing conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes. Therefore, I’m going to stick to natural remedies anyone can practice. Bonus: they are cheap and effective.
- Fluids. “Keep hydrated!” is such a battle cry because it’s true. Water makes every process in your body go ’round and a few days without it is deadly. Water is the best choice, but if you feel like hot tea and chicken soup soothes you, go for it. Just avoid caffeinated beverages because they can dehydrate you by speeding up the water processing going on in the kidneys.
- Humidity. Either cool mist humidifiers or steam vaporizers can fill the air with cough and cold soothing moisture. One is no better than the other because the water vapor is the same temperature by the time it reaches your nose from either device. However if there are young children around, choose a cool mist humidifier so there is no danger of burns from the machine. A steamy shower works well, too.
- Nasal TLC. Relieving cracked and swollen nasal passages will make you feel better and it’s a solid step in preventing your next cold (more on that in a minute). Doctors swear by neti pots and saline sprays, but I find them almost impossible to use when I am stuffed up. Remember what I told you before about most of your misery coming from swelling and irritation and not mucous? It means “flushing the cold out” is not really possible. I prefer using Saline Soothers Nose Wipes. They feel so good and are completely fragrance free. They are so soft to your nose, not sticky and clammy like those moisturized tissues, although you can use them like a tissue. Plus, they’re much more portable than a neti pot.
- Gargle. There’s that saline again (because it’s pretty great). Gargling with warm salt water can soothe an irritated throat.
- Ice packs. This is an often overlooked treatment that is so, so good. Laying a cold compress for 10 minutes across your nose, sinuses, and eyes can make you go, “Ahhhhhh.”
- Sleep. It allows your body to heal and work optimally. More on this in the prevention section.
So while you can find some relief, there is no “magic bullet” cold cure. Prevention is always a solid idea.
- Nasal TLC. Told you I would get back to this. You can get a “new” cold by a different virus on the heels of your “old” cold. In fact, you’re a rundown set-up for it. Preventing your nasal passageways from cracking means preventing easy access for invaders. Saline Soothers works great for this, too.
- Hand washing. Colds are spread by touching secretions from an infected person and then touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. Unfortunately, cold viruses can linger on hard indoor surfaces and still cause disease for up to 24 hours. Washing your hands in the best way to fight this, but YOU MUST WASH FOR AT LEAST 20 SECONDS, so cue up “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” in your head . . . or out loud. I won’t judge; I’ll just be glad you’re washing your hands. Washing under running water is best. You’re trying to physically remove the viruses. Plain soap is fine because antibacterial soaps don’t attack viruses, just bacteria. Hand sanitizers work well IF they are at least 60% alcohol. Rubbing the sanitizer around for 30 seconds ensures good coverage. Make sure to get under nails when using either soap or sanitizer.
- Exercise. Studies show that exercise decreases the ICAM-1 receptors on the surface of your cells that allow cold viruses to enter and infect you. Exercise also decreases stress hormones allowing your immune system to function optimally.
- Sleep. One well-constructed study shows people who regularly sleep 6 hours or less each night are 4 times more likely to get a cold than people who sleep just an hour longer. To summarize the findings simply, 7 to 8 hours of sleep allows your immune system to cycle through and recharge: the cells work better and the proteins they use to fight infection are more plentiful.
Yes, sleep and exercise sound like they can boost your immune system. I didn’t say that your immune system couldn’t be optimized, I said there wasn’t a magic pill or supplement to boost it. Plus, their real effectiveness is on the prevention side. Once, a cold is in full swing, you have to ride it out. Sorry.
You may have picked up on that Saline Soothers is one of my favorite things to use to fight my cold symptoms and prevent another cold from attacking me. They were kind enough to pay me for this post, but my words and the knowledge behind them are all thanks to my medical degree.
I just love Saline Soothers because they are so soothing (it’s in the name), they don’t have any scent or harsh ingredients, and they are so thick, I don’t feel like I have mucous soaking through to my hands. You can try them for yourself using this nifty coupon at your local Walgreens.
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