Health Blog

Preventing the common cold

Garlic, acupuncture and hydrogen peroxide: The crazy things we do to try to stay healthy

October 22, 2012

I might soon be getting a cold. My back is sore, my head is achy and my energy is zapped. The virus hasn’t fully settled in my lungs or made a home in my sinuses, but I have a feeling that I will soon be a victim of the cold and flu season. Then again, maybe I won’t. I may have just enough time to kick this thing before it even gets going.

Everyone knows there’s no cure for the common cold, but what about preventing it? It turns out there may be as many theories for staving off illness as there are colds in the U.S. every year (the answer — over 1 billion colds move among us annually). We are regularly offered scientific evidence about what does and doesn’t help prevent colds. A study published just last month in the Journal of Clinical Virology found that school-age children are vehicles for some of the most severe cold infections. On the other hand, reporters have jumped all over another paper published October 3 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which found that regular vitamin D does not reduce the incidence of upper respiratory tract infections. Does this mean that you should put down that vitamin bottle and step away from the runny nosed kids? While you might be tempted, it’s really too soon to conclude from these studies that exposure to children will make you sicker, or that you gain nothing from taking vitamin D.

On the more creative end of the spectrum there’s Gene Stone, who published a book in 2010 called “The Secrets of People Who Never Get Sick.” Tired of frequent colds and frustrated by traditional medical remedies, Stone turned to the real “experts” — the people he never saw get sick — and asked them what their secrets were. The answers range from the mundane (wearing a turtleneck on chilly days, eating raw garlic) to the dubious (closing the toilet lid before flushing, acupuncture) to the outrageous (dunking your head in hydrogen peroxide every day or even eating your own snot — supposedly to introduce pathogens into the immune system). There is almost nothing Stone’s subjects haven’t tried.

Then there are the standard preventive measures: washing your hands; doing aerobic exercise; eating green, red, and yellow fruits and vegetables, which are full of phytochemicals like lycopene (in the news most recently for helping prevent strokes).

But the nugget of wisdom I’ve always abided by is cutting alcohol consumption. Downing a beer when you’re in the troughs of sickness just doesn’t feel right, but it turns out you should sober up well before then if you want to give your body a fighting chance. Our immune system relies on monocytes, or white blood cells involved in front-line defense, to fight infection. When exposed to alcohol, they produce only a quarter as much of the virus-fighting signaling molecule called type-1 interferon as unexposed monocytes make. Alcohol also suppresses the ability of white blood cells to multiply to the amount needed to fight your impending infection, and it deprives the body of valuable, immune-boosting nutrients. And, since alcohol triggers an inflammatory response from your immune system, your cells lose fluid, further compromising your body’s immune response.

Chances are there will never be a definitive answer on how to prevent a cold, but there are certainly some smart things you can do to try and nip it in the bud. As for me, I’m going to make sure I get some good sleep, eat healthily and, my favorite trick, stay away from the bar. I’ll skip the snot-eating, though.

About the Author

Katie Hiler

Katie Hiler came to SHERP carrying degrees in Brain and Cognitive Science and English from the University of Rochester after three years in the world of academic publishing. She enjoys writing about neuroscience, health and babies whenever possible. She is a producer for WNYU’s science news show The Doppler Effect and is fast becoming an audio and podcast junkie. You can follow her relatively trivial science musings on Twitter via @sciencewritr.



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