My last post was about dealing with winter so it seemed fitting to follow up with a post on how to handle that little bug we associate with this time of year: the common cold.
First some facts. Common colds and flus are most often caused by viruses. They are passed from human to human via inhaling infected droplets (like when someone coughs on you while you're taking the subway to work at 6:45 am on a -30degC morning), unwashed hands, and other contaminated surfaces. Colds do occur more frequently in the winter months, but this doesn't have everything to do with the temperature but more to do with what the temperature makes us do, that is, stay inside. Yes, it's the close quarters we tend to occupy during these chilly months that ease the transmission of viruses and not the snow or your cold feet.
Our body's first line of defence against the cold is actually mucus. Inside our nose and throat it traps the things we breathe in including viruses and bacteria. This isn't always successful especially when dealing with tiny viruses like the rhinovirus the cause of most of our wintry complaints. The virus attaches to a receptor inside the nose (or throat) and invades a cell, taking over it's replication machinery and leading it to make more of the virus. As the virus invades cells and causes cell lysis in the name of replication, chemicals are released that help initiate an immune response. We see inflammation occur as white blood cells are brought to flood the infected area and cold symptoms are produced: runny nose, sneezing, fatigue, malaise, and possibly a fever, sore throat or cough. For the most part, colds and most flus are easily diagnosed using clinical symptoms, however certain symptoms are not characteristic of a viral infection and warrant further investigation and possible intervention with antibiotics or lab tests. For example, high fever, yellow/green purulent mucus, change in behaviour in children, trouble swallowing, drooling, productive cough, chest/back pain with cold/flu like symptoms.
Typically our immune system is able to resolve the symptoms of a cold within 7 days or so by preventing further cell infection and destroying the rhinovirus already produced.
Viruses, as they are viruses and not bacteria, do not respond to antibiotics. Conventional treatments for colds tend to revolve around symptom management. Typical over-the-counter medicines may help to decrease congestion or soothe the mucus membranes, but they are not intended to decrease the duration of illness or support the body's innate capacity to heal.
When I treat a cold or flu using naturopathic medicine , my treatment goals are:
- to decrease the duration,
- make symptoms more manageable,
- to help stop the spread of the cold/flu,
- and to support the body's own capacity to heal.
And there so many very simple ways to do this! Things you've probably heard about or been doing for ages, but didn't realize how or how much they were working.
Wash your hands! No shame in being a hand washing vigilante during cold and flu season. Use soap and water when you can as they work better than antimicrobial alcohol gels.
One of my great supervisors at the RSNC reminded me of this in preview just the other day and this is especially important for teachers and any other professionals who find themselves both talking a lot and being exposed to lots of colds. Keeping hydrated not only keeps your body functioning optimally it also keeps your throat nice and wet. Remember our body's first line of defence? Mucus needs to be moist (yuck) to do the job it's supposed to do, so frequent sips of water or use of throat lozenges during cold season are a great way to make sure this happens.
To start, think twice before you binge on all the things you're not supposed to while you're sick. Choose nourishing, warming and easily digestible foods such as soups and stews and try to stay away from all processed sugar. You've probably been given chicken soup while sick by some well-meaning individual at one point or another and it turns out, they may have had the right idea! Chicken soup may help to keep your immune cells where they're needed while you're sick. Foods rich in vitamin C and bioflavonoids can help to support your immune system, e.g. grapefruits, blueberries, navel oranges, lemons, cabbage, carrots. Vitamin C and zinc are also useful for decreasing the duration of a cold when taken in supplement form, though getting the dose right is important if you want to see a difference - this is a good reason to consult your ND. Some everyday foods show antimicrobial activity as well such as chopped onions, crushed garlic and unpasteurized honey. You can try one of these wild concoctions if you're a wizard in the kitchen or just an adventurous eater:
Chopped onion + honey
Dice and onion and cover with enough unpasteurized honey to submerge. Stir and allow onion to begin to dissolve over the period of a few days. A tablespoon may be taken at a time to soothe and coat the throat when sick.
Garlic, honey and vinegar.
Mix together a crushed clove of garlic with 1 tbsp each unpasteurized honey and apple cider vinegar and take as needed to soothe the throat.
An old naturopathic favourite, hydrotherapy helps to support the immune system by increasing circulation of important bug-fighting cells through use of alternating hot and cold. Contrast showers are a great place to start: after you're all warmed up in your shower, switch to a burst of cold for 30 seconds, and then back to hot for 2-3 minutes, back to cold for 30s, back to hot, and then end on cold. What! End on cold! Seriously, you'll be surprised how good it makes you feel. Steam inhalation can be a huge relief for congestion: put near-boiling water in a bowl, lean your head over it and drape a towel over both your head and the bowl. If it feels too hot, please let it cool a bit first! Hang out there as long it feels good and allow your sinuses to drain. This can be aided and made even more enjoyable by 1-2 drops of an essential oil like Eucalyptus.
5. Botanical medicine
Oh man are there ever a lot of a good herbs to help manage the symptoms of a cold and decrease it's duration. And some of them you may already have in your tea cupboard.
- Peppermint tea: when drank acts both to soothe a spasmodic cough and as a decongestant
- Sage tea: can be gargled or sipped throughout the day, acts as an astringent tightening the mucus membranes and will soothe a sore throat
- Ginger tea: warming and also anti-inflammatory
- Chamomile tea: great to drink, also nice as a steam inhalation, acting to decongest.
Echinacea is very effective taken as a tincture or even a capsule, as long as it contains a substantial amount of echinacea root as well as the aerial parts. Elderberry is wonderful for immune support and delicious if taken as an oxymel or syrup. Slippery elm lozenges are great for helping to soothe a sore throat. There are literally dozens and dozens of other herbs that can be useful depending on your symptoms, so consulting an herbalist or naturopath for what herbs and dosages are best for the symptoms colds usually elicit in you is, you guessed it, not a bad idea!
Do you feel like you get colds way more often then anyone else at your office/school/home? Maybe your body is trying to tell you something. Being run down is a great way to get sick. This can happen any number of ways - psychological stress has been associated with an increased incidence in the common cold, and it's definitely the case that poor nutrition for whatever reason (ain't got the time!) impacts immune function. If you find that you get sick many times during the course of our cold/flu season, listen to your body and at the very least, take some time to rest and get healthy. At the most, know that this doesn't have to be the case; simple lifestyle and dietary changes, combined with stress management, herbal and nutritional support can make a world of difference in someone getting frequently ill.
Off to wash my hands - I'm trying for a cold-free winter!
This post was featured in Jan. 17's Fight Back Friday. Click through for more great links!