Colds and Flu
The Common Cold
The common cold is a mild, self-limiting infectious disease that can be caused by more than 100 different viruses. In fact, a cold virus is the most common infectious disease a human can contract. The common cold results in significant costs to the economy in lost workdays and school attendance. Adults average 2-4 colds per year and children 6-10, depending on age and exposure. A 2003 study by the University of Michigan (UM) found the common cold results in more than 100 million physician visits annually, at a cost of $7.7 billion. The UM study also revealed that one-third of common cold patients received an antibiotic, although antibiotics have no effect on viral infections, a circumstance that adds to the cost of care and contributes to the development of antibiotic resistance. The same UM study also found that Americans spend $3 billion annually on over-the-counter drugs that may not provide any symptom relief, and that an estimated 189 million school days are missed due to colds, consequently resulting in 126 million missed workdays by parents who stay home to care for sick children.
Influenza (or the flu) is an acute respiratory illness caused by an influenza virus. The flu occurs worldwide and is responsible for considerable morbidity and mortality. It is more severe than the common cold and causes fever, headache, muscle aches, and a more significant cough; although a mild case of the flu looks very similar to the common cold.
In the United States, the flu typically occurs during the winter months, with the flu "season" stretching from fall to spring in the northern hemisphere and peak activity being December through March. In years when an actual flu epidemic occurs, 10 percent or more of the population is typically infected, with one-half of those infected showing symptoms. Although flu viruses can infect any age group, children have the highest infection rates. Serious illness and death rates are highest among the elderly, young children under age two, and those with medical conditions placing them at increased risk for complications.
Because of potential severity and epidemic/pandemic possibilities, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommends annual immunizations for people at high risk for flu-related complications, people who live with or care for persons at high risk, and health-care workers. Immunization can prevent hospitalization, reduce influenza-related respiratory illnesses, decrease physician visits among all age groups, prevent otitis media among children, and decrease work absenteeism.
Although the flu and the common cold are just that, quite common, there are positive steps that can be taken to help reduce the chances of catching a cold or the flu. Here are some key tips to consider:
- Get plenty of rest. During the high flu season it is important to get plenty of rest and not become overexerted regularly, especially when you are already feeling tired and rundown. A good night's sleep helps the body rejuvenate and repair itself. It also strengthens the immune system.
- Eat right. A healthy diet equips the body with the nutrients needed to keep the body's defenses in tip-top shape. Be sure to get at least one serving of green, leafy vegetables with each meal, and drink plenty of fluids. Being well-hydrated helps the body flush out toxins.
- Avoid excessive alcohol intake. An occasional glass of wine is fine, but studies suggest that alcohol intake beyond one glass of wine or beer can depress the body's immune system.
- Take a hike. Although strenuous physical activity during a cold or the flu is not advisable, something that can actually be helpful is light exercise in the form of a brisk walk or 15-20 minutes on the treadmill. This is because the physical activity increases circulation, which in turn helps rid the body of toxins and gets nutrients and oxygen to cells.
- Although it can't prevent getting a cold or the flu, taking a multi-vitamin-mineral product to supplement your diet can help support the immune system.* Additional botanicals and nutrients with properties known to help maintain a healthy immune system can also be taken.*
- Wash your hands. Get in the habit of washing your hands often, thoroughly with soap or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Hand-washing is a simple yet effective way to reduce the spread of infection. Furthermore, avoid touching your face because a virus that is on your hands can easily enter your body through contact with the eyes, ears, nose, or mouth.
- Avoid people who are sick whenever possible. The primary method by which the influenza virus is thought to spread is person to person from respiratory droplets of coughs and sneezes (called "droplet spread"). This happens when droplets from a cough or sneeze of an infected person are propelled through the air and deposited on the hands or face of a nearby person.
- When you are sick stay home or at least avoid contact with others. Most healthy adults can infect others beginning one day before symptoms develop and 5-7 days after becoming sick. Children may be able to pass on the virus even longer. Symptoms start 1-4 days after the virus enters the body, meaning you can pass the flu to someone else before you know you are sick.
- Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze and throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.
Be sure to see a health-care practitioner:
- When cold symptoms worsen after 3 days and are accompanied with a sore throat and a fever of 101 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, as this may be a sign of a bacterial infection.
- If you have previously suffered from rheumatic fever and have developed a sore throat.
- If you start to experience wheezing or chest congestion and have difficulty breathing.