It's cold and flu season again. And it's not only the holidays that make this time of year so expensive. Because Americans collectively suffer a billion colds every year, shelling out $3.5 billion annually for doctors and nonprescription treatments.
Many colds are caused by viruses such as the rhinovirus. The rhinovirus stampedes even harder than its namesake African beast. The flu virus is even worse than a cold, each year costing Americans $10 billion while sending 240,000 to the hospital and killing another 36,000. And flu shots are no guarantee you won't be a victim. In a recent two-year period, flu shots were only 44% effective in preventing the flu.
In this article I'll share simple, smart and inexpensive ways you and your family can shorten the length and severity of a cold or flu — or better yet prevent them — by increasing the strength of your virus-fighting immune system. I also shed light on whether or not people with CFS and fibromyalgia should get an annual flu shot.
Tis the season to be happy, jolly and merry. Not miserable with a cold or flu!
An Ounce of Prevention
Simple habits can be dramatically effective in preventing cold and flu infections. Here's what you need to know.
1. Take a good multivitamin every day.
Many nutrients, especially zinc and vitamin C, are important for your body's immune defense systems to work properly. Take a good multivitamin to ensure you're getting a well-balanced set of nutrients.
This is especially important if you have CFS/FMS, as you probably have low zinc if you've not already been taking a good multivitamin. In fact, even if you have been, I recommend take an extra 20 mg of zinc every day for three months leading up to cold and flu season (i.e., to "load the tank"). After that the amount in a good multivitamin should be sufficient. The extra zinc should cost less than $10 for the entire three month supply, making this one of the cheapest and most effective ways to improve immune function!
2. Remember your mother's advice: Wash your hands!
Contrary to what most people think, you typically don't catch a cold from inhaling the virus. More likely, the viruses were hanging out on a doorknob or other object, and you transferred them from your fingers to your mouth or face. So during cold season, wash your hands more frequently. And do a thorough job (wash your hands for about the same length of time that it takes you to sing "Happy Birthday").
3. Get 8 hours sleep at night.
Experiments show that depriving an animal of sleep suppresses its immune system. Your immune system is sleep-sensitive, too. So don't experiment on yourself! Aim for 8 hours sleep every night. I suspect poor sleep in CFS/FMS is an important contributor to immune dysfunction.
Having trouble with this? Here's all you need to know to get great sleep!
What to Do If You Already Have the Infection
1. Avoid dairy products.
Feel a cold coming on? Don't overdo the dairy. Yes, foods like milk and cheese are filled with bone-building calcium. But their proteins can also make existing phlegm thicker and more irritating to the throat and sinus passages, which worsens uncomfortable upper respiratory symptoms like stuffiness and coughing, and sets the stage for a post-cold (and painful!) throat or sinus infection. It's okay to have some dairy, but don't overdo it during colds.
2. Skip the soda, too.
The nine teaspoons of sugar in the average 12 ounce can of soda suppresses immune function by 30% for up to three hours — just the opposite of what you want to do when you have a cold or flu!
3. Use a nasal rinse.
Coughing out mucus or blowing your nose is your body's way of getting rid of billions of bacteria and viruses so your immune system doesn't have to kill them in hand-to-hand combat. An easy way to help your body get rid of those bugs is to use a nasal rinse, which washes out more than 90% of the critters. A homemade recipe for a nasal rinse is to mix 1/2 teaspoon salt per cup of lukewarm water. You can add an optional pinch of baking soda to make it more soothing.
An effective way to use nasal rinse is by using a neti pot. You can find neti pots at your local health food store or drugstore (e.g., the NasaFlow Neti pot from NeilMed), and they'll will likely include the salts to make the rinse. If you don't want to use a neti pot, you can rinse by either sniffing it from the palm of your hand or by squirting an eyedropper of the rinse into each of your nostrils (you'll need to lay down to do this). After rinsing your nose, blow gently (don't blow too hard as this can hurt your ears).
4. Drink lots of warm water.
Drinking warm water (hot tea or hot water with a squirt of lemon for flavor) loosens the mucous and allows you to cough it out more easily.
5. Inhale steam.
This is a great tip for colds that have turned into bronchitis. Just take a hot shower and take a few deep breaths. This will loosen the mucous so you can cough it out.
6. Suck on zinc lozenges.
An analysis of several studies shows that using zinc lozenges during a cold can reduce its duration by 42%. That's nearly cutting it in half! The keys to cold-shortening success when using zinc lozenges are the type of zinc and the amount used.
Use zinc acetate, and suck on enough lozenges to get at least 70 mg of zinc a day. For example, suck on four 20 mg lozenges per day. If you can't find lozenges with more than 10 mg, suck on two at a time. GNC and the Vitamin Shoppe have tasty ones. (See Zinc Lozenges Can Cut Length of Colds by Half! for more information, and the reference to the study.)
7. Keep a supply of ViraPro and ProBoost in your medicine cabinet.
Supplementing with 1 tablet of ViraPro each day is a good way to support your immune system (if you need additional support during an acute infection, you can increase to 3-6 tablets a day for up to 7 days). In addition to its immune-enhancing vitamins and minerals, ViraPro contains high levels of elderberry, a fruit extract that can bind and disable a flu virus.
Another supplement helpful to your immune system is ProBoost. The thymus gland helps power your immune system, and natural thymic hormone, which is provided by ProBoost, is an especially effective immune stimulant. Dissolve the contents of one packet under your tongue three times a day until the infection clears up. Taken at the first sign of a cold or flu (or sinus infection or acute bronchitis), it usually stops the infection within 12 to 36 hours. Because starting it early works best, and because it can be hard to find in some health food stores, I recommend you always keep a supply of this in your medicine cabinet as a precaution..
8. And keep Oscillococcinum on hand, too.
Oscillococcinum is a homeopathic remedy that can help ease the symptoms of the flu or flu-like symptoms of a cold, such as chills, fever, achiness, and just plain old feeling bad (malaise). The remedy also speeds healing. For it to work, you need to take it early in the infection, as soon as you have any symptoms. Like ProBoost, this is also a good remedy to keep on hand in your medicine cabinet — or to get at the first sign of the flu. Oscillococcinum can be found in most health food stores, in some supermarkets, and online.
9. Take 1,000 to 8,000 mg of vitamin C daily.
It's helpful to take vitamin C even while you have a cold. Researchers analyzed 30 studies on vitamin C and colds, involving more than 11,000 people. They found that taking the vitamin shortened the duration of colds up to 13% in adults and up to 22% in children. For optimal prevention, take a daily multivitamin that includes 500 mg of vitamin C.
10. Use dark chocolate and honey as "cough medicine"!
You heard me right! A two-ounce square of dark chocolate can suppress coughs as effectively as cough medicines. (Dark chocolate contains at least 75% cacao, which provides antioxidant health benefits.) If you have a dry cough that irritates your lungs, eating dark chocolate can sooth it. A wet cough, in contrast, is actually a productive cough that gets rid of mucous and shouldn't be suppressed.
Another tasty home remedy commonly used to treat scratchy throats and coughs is honey. A randomized controlled trial of 105 children with colds supports the use of buckwheat honey to quiet coughs that interfere with sleep.
Should You Get the Flu Vaccine if You Have Fibromyalgia?
It depends. People with CFS/FMS who have a history of having a bad reaction to the flu vaccine should not get it. People who have a history of being wiped out by the flu (or have other illnesses requiring a flu shot) should get it. For everybody else, the shot is optional. An important point is that I've never seen anybody develop CFS/FMS from getting the flu vaccine, though both the flu and the vaccine can cause a flare up.
Is it reasonable for you to get a flu shot? Yes. Though I personally choose not to. I think a better approach for those with CFS/FMS is to skip the flu vaccine and instead use the immune-strengthening prevention tips I discussed in this article. But if you do choose the vaccine, please remember my earlier note that with CFS/FMS you need to make sure your zinc levels are healthy. If low, which is common in CFS/FMS, the vaccine is not likely to work as well for you.
Jacob Teitelbaum, M.D. is one of the world's leading integrative medical authorities on fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue. He is the lead author of four research studies on their treatments, and has published numerous health & wellness books, including the bestseller on fibromyalgia From Fatigued to Fantastic! and The Fatigue and Fibromyalgia Solution. Dr. Teitelbaum is one of the most frequently quoted fibromyalgia experts in the world and appears often as a guest on news and talk shows nationwide including Good Morning America, The Dr. Oz Show, Oprah & Friends, CNN, and Fox News Health.