Nobody wants to get hit with a cold or flu. Obviously! Sickness slows us down, makes us crabby, wipes us out, and – if it’s bad enough – can put us at risk for other complications. We all want to do whatever we can to avoid getting sick this cold and flu season.
But, why am I writing about it here – at Dinner for a Dollar? Because, in addition to the cold and flu being a pain for our work and family schedules, the common cold and influenza cost Americans over $50 billion dollars a year in missed work, medical care, and over-the-counter meds. The common cold alone costs Americans $40 billion a year – that’s more than asthma and heart failure! So, in addition to a cold just being a pain, it’s also expensive.
So, I thought I would take some time to see what the research says about how we can avoid getting the cold and flu.
Is there anything we can do to reduce our risk? If we get it, is there anything we can do to cure it – or to reduce the duration or intensity?
Before we get started, I need to start with one BIG disclaimer!!! I am not a health professional of any sort. I have no formal training in physical health or medicine. Today I am making no claims whatsoever, I am simply reporting on what the researchers have determined. As with anything related to your health, check with your health care provider first and do your own research to determine what’s best for you and your family.
After spending several hours researching for this blog (and frankly my own health research), I discovered that there’s good news and there’s bad news. Are you the kind of person who likes to hear the good news or bad news first? I am a “bad news first” kind of person. Since I am the one writing this, I will start with the bad news. If you are a “good news first” kind of person, skip down a bit and start there 😊.
The bad news…..
Researchers have found no cure for the cold or flu. None at all. So, don’t try to look for it. Cause it isn’t out there yet.
The sort of bad news…..
There have been a handful of things that researchers have discovered that *might* reduce the duration and/or intensity of the cold or flu, but those are not definitive yet. I may get into these in another blog someday. But, for now, I will just say that there appears to be hope that garlic, zinc, and elderberry syrup could possibly reduce the severity and intensity of a cold or flu, but it’s still considered inconclusive. I can say that the evidence is enough for me to add elderberry syrup, garlic, and zinc into my regimen when I want to avoid getting sick.
The good news…
Ok – so we got the bad stuff out of the way. Once you get the cold or flu, there is no cure and there may or may not be things to reduce the severity or intensity. So, what could possibly be good news after hearing that?
There ARE things shown to be effective at improving our body’s immune function. If we do these BEFORE we get sick, we could possibly reduce our risk of catching a cold or flu.
The really, really good news…
Almost all of these are completely free. Free???? Yeppers….you heard that right. Free. Since free is my favorite price, I am pretty dang excited to share these things with you here!!!
What follows are…
12 ways that research has shown we can strengthen immune functioning and response.
When we regularly practice these habits, we strengthen our immune response and can reduce our risk of getting sick. Other than the first one, these are in no order!
1) Wash your hands
I know it seems silly to bring this up, but hand washing is well-verified as one of the strongest ways to prevent getting sick. Here is an excellent compilation of the research on handwashing. Here is a video you can watch or show to your children about the proper way to wash your hands. If you want to reduce your risk of catching a cold or getting the flu in your home, start with frequent and thorough hand washing.
2) Don’t touch your face
Turns out just washing your hands isn’t enough! You also need to STOP TOUCHING YOUR FACE!!!!! Researchers found that, on average, people touched surfaces and then touched their nose or mouth between 3-4 times per hour. Even if you have just washed your hands, if you touch a contaminated surface and then touch your nose or mouth, you can be contaminating yourself. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3552529/. So, steps 1 and 2 really go hand in hand (aaaahhhh- see what I did there? “hand in hand”). But, seriously….wash your hands + don’t touch your face. It’s the winning combo.
3) Don’t share
Sharing is good in so many areas of life but not utensils, drinks, straws, towels. And certainly not during cold and flu season. I’m not even going to site a research study on this because it has so much common sense to it. Share the love, not the drink.
4) Gargle with plain water
What? Gargling with plain water? Yep! Turns out if you gargle with plain water, you can significantly reduce your risk of getting an upper respiratory infection! And if you do get one, the habit of gargling with plain water reduces the intensity and duration of it. Talk about simple and cheap! Bonus points that kids love to gargle because it is both messy AND obnoxious.
5) Don’t smoke
Smokers have an increased risk of developing a cold or flu and an increased risk of developing complications. If you’ve been thinking about quitting, but needed an extra reason why, maybe this is it!
The benefits of laughter on our physical health are inconclusive. How laughter relates to helping us fight off colds or the flu is unknown. However, there appears to be enough evidence to suggest that laughter helps us cope with the difficulties of life – so I am including it here. Having a good sense of humor may or may not help your body fight off the cold or flu. But, if you do get sick, humor can help you better cope with it.
“As Rosner reported, randomized controlled clinical trials have not been conducted validating the therapeutic efficacy of laughter. Benefits, however, have been reported in geriatrics, oncology, critical care, psychiatry, rehabilitation, rheumatology, home care, palliative care, hospice care, terminal care, and general patient care. These and other reports constitute sufficient substantiation to support what is experientially evident—laughter and humor are therapeutic allies in healing.”
7) Reduce Stress
Researchers now know that chronic stress affects the body’s ability to regulate inflammation which can make people more susceptible to infection. This chronic stress is more than the daily stressors that come and go, but rather a significant amount for a long time. So, if you are dealing with something in your life that creates chronic stress, talk to your health care provider or a mental health professional about ways to consistently reduce the stress in your life.
We all know that exercise is good for us. We know that it reduces stress, improves mood, improves sleep, improves flexibility, can reduce injuries, improve heart function, and reduce the risk of stroke. All in all, exercise does the body good. And most of us should be doing more of it than we are (if you could see me, my hand would be raised right now!). But, did you know that frequent, moderate exercise reduces your chance of getting an upper respiratory infection? And, if you do get one, it reduces the severity and duration! All exercise is not created equally when it comes to cold and flu prevention.
So read the following studies to get more info. Just know that the words “moderate” and “frequent” are very important! If you want to reduce your risk of catching a cold this winter, lace up those shoes and get moving!
I think we all know that getting good sleep is important. In our fast-paced, tech-heavy, and caffeine-driven society that values productivity more than rest, it is sometimes hard to get all the sleep we need. Researchers now understand how critical sleep is for our overall health, well-being, and productivity.
One study showed that people who slept less than 7 hours were 3 times more likely to catch a cold than those who got more than 8 hours. It’s not just the duration of sleep that matters, but also quality. Those with poor quality sleep were 5.5 times more likely to catch a cold than those who got good quality sleep. So, if you’re not sleeping well or not sleeping enough, take some time to prioritize that. It’s one of the most effective ways to give you a fighting chance against the cold and flu.
10) Get in the sun (but just a little bit)
We all know that too much sun exposure can lead to skin cancer. This is well established. But researchers are now beginning to understand that small doses of sun can be beneficial to us. It appears sun exposure aids in the induction of vitamin D synthesis. Vitamin D performs several roles within the immune system as well as aiding in bone homeostasis. This area needs more research to understand the full effects the sun has on our immune function. But, as of now, it appears that a little bit of sun is good for us!
11) Take Vitamin D
The studies are not clear if vitamin D can prevent the flu. However, “The studies clearly show that vitamin D is, undoubtedly, part of the complex factors which affect the immune response. So, assessing vitamin D status and maintaining optimal serum levels should be considered in all aging adults and children, and micronutrients should be regarded as one of the essential factors which improve our health condition overall and also support our fight against diseases.”
Did you know 41% of US adults are Vitamin D deficient? So, if you haven’t done so lately, get your vitamin D levels checked!
12) Get out in nature
“Contact with nature has been tied to health in a plenitude of studies. Time spent in and around tree-lined streets, gardens, parks, and forested and agricultural lands is consistently linked to objective, long-term health outcomes. The less green a person’s surroundings, the higher their risk of morbidity and mortality – even when controlling for socioeconomic status and other possible confounding variables. The range of specific health outcomes tied to nature is startling, including depression and anxiety disorder, diabetes mellitus, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), various infectious diseases, cancer, healing from surgery, obesity, birth outcomes, cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal complaints, migraines, respiratory disease, and others, reviewed below. Finally, neighborhood greenness has been consistently tied to life expectancy and all-cause mortality.”
I was SHOCKED when I learned that time in nature directly impacts so many serious health conditions. When I shared these studies with my husband, we both agreed to make a strong commitment to regularly get out in nature in 2020. Who’s with me on that one?
Why I sort of hate this list…
I sort of hate this list…ha ha ha. What could I possibly hate about this list? Well, none of it will cure the cold or flu. So, if I have already caught a cold or flu and am looking for a way out, none of these things will get me out of the ditch. Also, all of them need to be consistently practiced ahead of time – when I am not sick – and when I am not thinking about sickness. Practicing them ahead of time ensures that when I am exposed to a cold or flu, my immune system is in tip-top shape and can do its job well. Cause we really don’t know when we are going to be exposed. So, when I am in the middle of all the hustle and bustle, I need to consistently practice these things in order for them to work when I need them to.
The other hard part about these habits is that many of them are not common. Some of them are counter-cultural. So, in order to really get their effects, we need to swim against the current and adopt consistent habits that just aren’t common.
Why I simultaneously love this list…
I love it because each of these steps are simple actions that not only can reduce my chances of catching a cold or getting the flu, but many of them have other significant health benefits, too. And…most of them are free. That’s what I call a win-win!
I also love it because each of these steps is well within my control. I can control if I will gargle water, get outside, get moving, and go to bed on time. And knowing that these simple, mostly pleasurable things can reduce my risk of getting sick this cold and flu season motivates me to action.
Which of these habits are you already doing? Which of these are new for you to consider adopting? What do you during cold and flu season to reduce your chances of getting sick?