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Stopping Colds: Fact Vs. Hype

By Elizabeth Boskey, Ph.D. M.P.H. C.H.E.S.

Spring may be around the corner, but it's still the season for snot and sneezing. Everywhere you look you'll see people coughing, sneezing, and generally spreading their germs around for everyone to share. Illnesses spread like wildfire through the office and the gym, and you can practically feel the cold hand of fate reaching for you and looking for a way in. So how can you stay healthy when everyone around you is dropping like a stone? Should you listen to your mother and drink chicken soup? Should you pop vitamin C like candy?

The short answer is that if there were an easy way to avoid the common cold, it wouldn't be so common and illness. That said, you can make a valiant attempt; below, a look at what the research shows actually works to prevent colds and related illnesses, and what may just be a waste of time.

True or False: Washing your hands will help keep you healthy?
True. Although most people think of colds and similar illnesses as being airborne, that is not necessarily their most common form of transmission. Some infections do, indeed, spread most efficiently through the air, but other common viruses spread most effectively by touch. Respiratory Syncytial virus (RSV), for example, can live for days on contaminated surfaces, and spreads quite efficiently to anyone who touches them. Therefore, if you're in an environment where there are a lot of sick people around, it pays to wash your hands as often as practical, particularly after touching objects that get a lot of common handling. That includes the gym, where people tend to grip the same handles and drip their sweat all over the machines. Some people prefer to use alcohol-based hand sanitizers, which are at least as effective as hand washing in eliminating germs, but far more convenient for regular use. Plus, it's easier to use a sanitizer correctly than to wash your hands correctly.

True or False: The flu shot does more harm than good.
False. The flu shot is a very effective way at preventing influenza. However, since it does nothing for the common cold—and colds are certainly common—you may feel like getting jabbed didn't do you any good. Not so. The influenza vaccine has been shown to effectively reduce the amount of serious illnesses seen not only in those who receive the vaccine, but also in those around them because of herd immunity. Herd immunity occurs when enough people in the population have been vaccinated for a disease, or otherwise become immune to it, that it's unlikely that a susceptible person will ever be exposed to someone who is infected. The primary shortcoming of the influenza vaccine is that the included strains for any given year are based on scientists' best guess as to which ones are going to be most common that flu season. They're usually right, but sometimes an unexpected strain sneaks through which the vaccine can't protect against.

True or False: Taking Vitamin C helps keep you from getting sick.
False—but with a caveat. A massive review of all the research on using Vitamin C to prevent colds found that, except in very specific circumstances, even mega-doses of the vitamin did no better than a placebo at reducing the likelihood of infection. What were those circumstances? High-performance athletes and those living in arctic environments did, in fact, get fewer colds if they took large doses of vitamin C. But unless you're living in the northern wastelands, spend most of your time skiing, or are a marathon runner, taking vitamin C probably won't help keep you from getting sick. Will it help you get better faster? On that, the jury is still out, but early results suggest that the slight improvement in how long you'll stay ill is nothing compared to how much time you'll spend trying to get the next bottle of vitamins open.

True or False: Zinc will shorten the duration of a cold.
The research is still inclusive, so the answer is a solid maybe. Will zinc stop you from getting a cold? Will it make you get better faster? Is putting that zinc gel up your nose really disgusting? Only one of those questions currently has a clear answer—it's the third, and the answer is yes. As for the other questions, the research has been seriously mixed. About half of the studies on the use of zinc for treating colds have shown that it has no effect, and of the studies that do show an effect only one of them, on zinc nasal gel, is considered to be really well designed. Still, other than giving you the shivers from the unpleasant sensations, using zinc gel in cold season is unlikely to hurt you, and it just might help.

True or False: A little Echinacea and you'll never need to worry about a cold again
There's no clear answer on this question. Although there has been a lot of research on Echinacea, there haven't been a lot of answers. Part of this is because commercial preparations of the plant are incredibly inconsistent—some are made from one part, some from another, and a few might as well just be dust swept off the sidewalks. So far, the studies that have been done are equivocal on whether or not taking Echinacea can help keep you from getting sick. Results are slightly clearer on using it for treatment. There are some indications that preparations of the specific species Echinacea purpurea may be effective in shortening the duration of colds in adults, but the other types of Echinacea have not been found to be effective in adults, and none are really recommended for children.

The Final Word
If you want to stay healthy and avoid common illnesses, the best thing you can do for yourself is clean your hands thoroughly and often. If you're immuno-compromised, you might also consider wearing a mask when you're going to be around sick people, but that's probably excessive for most of the population. As for vitamin C, zinc, and Echinacea? It's almost certainly not worth the effort and expense of taking them every day to prevent an illness, but if you do get sick and don't want to go to the doctor, trying zinc and Echinacea might help you get better a little faster.

Speaking of getting sick… If you're laid low with a nasty cold, do your coworkers and fellow gym rats a favor and try to stay home until you're no longer leaking germs out of every orifice. The best way for them to stay healthy is for you to stay away. If your boss doesn't believe your true and supportable assertions that staying home is actually improving the company's overall productivity by not wiping out half of its workforce, then at least carry around some hand sanitizer when you go back in. Clean your hands frequently, particularly after blowing your nose and before touching any shared office equipment. In most circumstances, sharing may be caring, but most people would probably be a lot happier if everyone just kept their germs to themselves.


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