By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
The common cold is the most frequent, though generally mild, human disease there is. But, despite its commonality, many of us know little about how to prevent a cold.
The reason? There are so many myths about the common cold swirling around that even pharmacists and physicians have trouble debunking them, and millions of Americans are sniffling and sneezing in confusion about what to do. I’ve busted three prevalent cold myths that may be standing in your way of a healthy winter this year.
MYTH #1: Antibacterial Soaps and Hand Sanitizers Will Prevent Me from Catching or Spreading a Cold.
The only surefire way to not catch or spread a cold is by frequent hand washing and keeping your hands away from your face. But is it best to cleanse your hands with antibacterial soaps and hand sanitizers?
I don’t recommend antibacterial soaps. The active ingredient in many of these products is triclosan, a chemical that may play a role in cancer development. A study published in Clinical Infectious Diseases found that soaps containing triclosan were no better than plain soap at preventing infectious colds and getting rid of bacteria on the hands.
The same study pointed out that antibacterial soaps may contribute to the growing problem of bacterial resistance, which is causing many antibiotics to become ineffective. We don’t want to help germs any more than we have to.
As for hand sanitizers, they’re a real hot potato. Some studies say they’re fine; others beg to differ and assert than hand sanitizers have only a marginal benefit.
Here’s the deal: Most hand sanitizers contain alcohol, which eliminates germs on contact. Others contain ammonia, which attacks bacteria but does you no good against viruses. Also, some hand sanitizers are formulated with triclosan. And no hand sanitizer will work if your hands are dirty, nor will hand sanitizers wash off dirt. Visible dirt has to be washed off with regular soap and water.
So where does all this leave us?
Your best bet for protection against colds is basic hand washing with plain soap and warm water. Proper hand washing dissolves dirt and floats it away along with the germs. Lather up and scrub for at least 15 seconds. If you happen to shake hands or otherwise come into contact with someone who is sick, be sure not to touch your hands to your face until you wash them.
MYTH #2: Over-The-Counter Cold Medicines Can Shorten My Cold.
Coughing, sneezing and sniffling, a stuffy nose, sore throat, and other cold symptoms are nasty. They’re at their worst for one to three days and last seven to 10 days, although they sometimes hang on for three weeks. A bad cold can make you feel so miserable that you dash to the pharmacy for over-the-counter (OTC) cold medicine, with hope of a speedier recovery.
The reality is, although OTC cold medications temporarily ease your cold symptoms, they will not shorten your cold. Unfortunately, too, many of these drugs have downsides and could even make you sicker. Let me give you a few examples.
I’ve advised my older patients to pay close attention to antihistamines, like diphenhydramine, chlorpheniramine, and doxylamine in OTC cold remedies. As we get older, we don’t metabolize these medications well, and they cause drowsiness and are sedating. If taken at bedtime, they can remain in the body and cause falls at night or early morning confusion.
Here’s another reason to be cautious, and this goes for everyone: Antihistamines can cause the bladder to retain urine, possibly leading to urinary tract infections.
The combination of the decongestant phenylephrine and the pain-reliever acetaminophen in cold medicine may increase the risk of side effects that are potentially serious for people with heart disease.
And speaking of acetaminophen, it’s in a lot of multi-symptom cold remedies, along with other ingredients. So if you’re using one of these combo cold drugs, check the label for acetaminophen. If it’s listed, don’t take separate acetaminophen pills for pain, including prescription pain relievers. Too much acetaminophen can harm your liver. Don’t drink alcohol while taking acetaminophen, either.
Always check the list of active ingredients of any OTC medication before taking it. Not sure what the ingredients are? Ask your pharmacist.
MYTH #3: Getting Wet And Chilled Doesn’t Cause Colds.
Here’s one that surprised me. It used to be, medically speaking, that cold weather had nothing to do with catching a cold. After all, colds are caused by viruses, between 150 and 200 different types to be exact. Turns out though, that mom was right when she told you to dry your hair before going out in the cold! Brand-new research from Yale University demonstrates that chilly temperatures alter the immune system, allowing cold viruses to replicate virtually unchecked. Also, in cells lining nasal passages, genes that manufacture interferon, a virus-fighting protein, are less active at lower temperatures. The researchers noted, “most isolates of human rhinovirus, the common cold virus, replicate more robustly at the cool temperatures found in the nasal cavity (33–35 °C) than at core body temperature (37 °C).”
Intriguing research, but I must point out that the study was done on mice – which means a lot of lab mice were scurrying around Yale with colds. More studies on this issue are needed, especially on humans.
The take-away is this: Exposure to cold viruses through contact – for example, touching a computer keyboard or phone, a doorknob or toilet handle after an infected person has used it, or sitting next to someone who is coughing and sniffling on an airplane – is still a precondition for catching a cold. But once a few viruses contact the cells lining your nose, breathing cold winter air and going outside with wet hair may expose those cells to a chill that makes the virus reproduce and weakens your immune system. Stay warm and dry in winter as extra protection.
How To Prevent a Cold and Ease Cold Symptoms if You Do Get One
Prevention of cold viruses is all about strengthening your immune system. To do that, I like proper nutrition, with an emphasis on antioxidant-rich vegetables and fruits; rest; good quality sleep; and stress reduction. Beyond those fundamentals, I like targeted supplemental nutrition. Let me give you several important examples:
These formulas, found in yogurts and in pill form, endow your digestive system with “friendly” bacteria that have been shown to help your immune system respond aggressively to germs.
Although clinical proof for cold prevention with zinc comes from research involving only children, I feel that it works well in adults too. Also, if you catch a cold, take zinc within 24 hours of symptom onset, and you may shorten the duration of your cold. Take 10 to 15 mg daily.
Vitamin D, the sunlight vitamin, fortifies the immune system. Yet during the winter, most of us are indoors and don’t get enough sun exposure to maintain our body’s natural production of vitamin D. Take 2,000 IU of vitamin D daily, preferably in its highly-absorbable D3 form.
I live in the New England area, and it gets incredibly cold there in the winter. That’s why I supplement with beta glucan for protection against colds and flu. Take 250 mg of beta glucan two to three times a day.
Cut the chances of cold viruses replicating by taking this powerful antioxidant, derived from grape skins and red grape juice. It may also protect your lungs during cold season due to its anti-inflammatory effects. Take 30 mg daily but do not exceed 250 mg a day.
N-acetyl cysteine (NAC):
This powerful antioxidant strengthens immunity. It’s one of my favorite cold-fighting supplements. Take 500-600 mg of NAC twice a day.
If you get sick, there are ways you can ease miserable cold symptoms naturally. Get plenty of rest, drink fluids, and feed your cold with good nutrition. Sip chicken soup (a food source of NAC), but make sure you spike it with garlic (which is an anti-microbial agent), hot peppers, hot curry, and/or Tabasco sauce. Those ingredients help loosen mucus and, together with everything else, get you on the road to recovery.
Get my Spicy Chicken Soup recipe here!
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- Allan GM, and Arroll B. Prevention and treatment of the common cold: making sense of the evidence. CMAJ. 2014;186(3):190-199.
- Bergstrom KG. Update on antibacterial soaps: the FDA takes a second look at triclosans. JDD. 2014;13(4):501-503.
- Das RR, and Singh M. Oral zinc for the common cold. JAMA. 2014;311(14):1440-1441.
- Foxman EF, et al. Temperature-dependent innate defense against the common cold virus limits viral replication at warm temperature in mouse airway cells. PNAS. 2015;112(3):827-832.
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