You’ve had your flu shot, you wash your hands more often, you avoid crowded areas and still there is no guarantee that you will escape the common cold or worse this year or any other.
One reason why there is no ironclad protection against the cold is that more than 200 different viruses can cause cold symptoms, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), a division of the National Institute of Health (NIH). Most of these are relatively harmless in terms of lasting health effects, but some can lead to serious respiratory infections, especially among the elderly and the very young. Complications include bronchitis, pneumonia, sinusitis and ear infections.
More than 1 billion colds are counted in the United States every year, says Medline Plus, meaning that most Americans get hit more than once throughout the season. Children are particularly prone to spreading cold viruses in schools, playgrounds and homes. But office spaces, shopping malls, restaurants and public transportation means can be equally as hazardous.
Most common are the so-called Rhinoviruses (from the Greek word “rhin,” meaning “nose”), which are responsible for up to half of all colds. More than 100 different types of this strand have been identified so far, and more seem to emerge every year. Researchers believe that between 20 and 30 percent of all causes of colds remain unidentified.
The reason why there is such a thing as a cold season is not necessarily a drop in temperatures but rather human behavior. When the weather turns nasty outside, people tend to spend more time indoors and in closer proximity to one another, which gives the viruses a better chance to spread from person to person.
Breathing dry, cold air may also play a role since this dries out the inside lining of the nose, making it more vulnerable to viral infections.
Paradoxically, fewer people who stay physically active outdoors in the wintery weather seem to get sick than their hibernating counterparts, perhaps because exercising helps strengthen their immune system.
The right treatment
Boosting your natural defenses may be the most effective way to fend off cold threats. Eating lots of nutrient-dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein sources will help, as will managing stress, getting enough rest and abstaining from smoking and alcohol/drug abuse.
If it’s already too late and you’ve come down with a cold, it is important to get you back on your feet as quickly as possible. For this, you should stay in bed and drink lots of fluids, not only to keep hydrated but also to thin mucus and ease congestion.
Warm liquids can soothe a sore throat and help you get some sleep. Fruit juices may sound right because of their vitamin C content, but be careful not to put too much sugar into your system because excessively high sugar levels can hinder white blood cells from fighting infections.
Soups and stews are also a good provider of fluids. When made from scratch, a vegetable soup is a nutritional powerhouse, and it goes down more easily than solid foods.
If you take cold medications, make sure you follow instructions and don’t overdose in an attempt to speed things up. Don’t drive or operate machinery while under the influence, and don’t mix with alcohol.
Besides following these recommendations, getting enough rest and letting your body do its job is the most important measure you can take.
Patience is a necessary part of the healing process and should not be overlooked.
TIMI GUSTAFSON, R.D., a registered dietitian and health counselor, is the author of “The Healthy Diner: How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun.” Visit her website: timigustafson.com. To comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.