Here's a surprise: You may spend more time each year nursing a sore throat, fever, and runny nose than you do on vacation. Adults get about three colds a year on average, each lasting a week or two. On top of that, 5 to 20 percent of us will also get the flu, which can linger even longer. That's a month -- or more!
This year, take back that time--and your health. These tested tips for fighting colds and flu can help you stay well all winter.
Your mind can cut your chances of catching a cold by 40 to 50 percent, according to a 2012 University of Wisconsin, Madison, study. Fifty-one people who used mindfulness techniques logged 13 fewer illnesses and 51 fewer sick days than a control group during one cold-and-flu season, probably because meditation reduces physical effects of stress that weaken the immune system.
"We recommend taking probiotics--foods or supplements containing bacteria that are good for your health--that include Lactobacillus, because it can reduce the risk of both respiratory and gastrointestinal infections," says Mike Gleeson, PhD, professor of exercise biochemistry at Loughborough University in England. And people taking probiotics were 42 percent less likely to get a cold than those on a placebo, according to a 2011 meta-analysis of 10 studies.
"Allicin, a substance in crushed garlic, helps fight viruses," says Dr. Richard Nahas, assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa. In a British study, volunteers who took a daily 180 mg allicin supplement caught 63 percent fewer colds over 12 weeks than those taking a placebo. Garlic cloves contain less allicin (5 to 9 mg), but even two raw cloves a day may help, says Dr. Randy Horwitz, medical director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine in Tucson.
Find tasty ways to add more garlic to your life with Prevention's Recipe Finder.
This Chinese mind-body exercise combines breath control and slow movements to reduce stress and improve focus, but it may also help combat colds. Twenty-seven varsity swimmers in a University of Virginia study learned qigong, and during their 7-week training season, those who practiced it at least once a week got 70 percent fewer respiratory infections than swimmers who used it less.
People who exercise five or more days a week spend 43 percent fewer days with upper-respiratory infections, according to an Appalachian State University study.
"I make sure I exercise to stay healthy," says lead author David Nieman, DrPH. "Aim for 30 to 60 minutes daily. It boosts blood flow so that the immune cells circulate throughout the body."
"For flu protection, nothing is as directly effective as vaccination," says Prevention advisory board member Dr. David L. Katz. If the post-shot muscle pain makes you injection-shy (and you're between ages 18 and 64), visit fluzone.com to find a location using intradermal shots, which are injected into skin and use much smaller needles.
Cleaning your hands frequently -- especially after touching anyone or anything that may be germy--is key to defending yourself against cold and flu viruses. But drying hands thoroughly is just as important, because germs cling to your skin more easily when it's wet. Be sure to replace damp towels with dry ones often.
Your immune system needs rest to keep you healthy. In one study done at Carnegie Mellon University, even if people said they felt well rested if they'd averaged fewer than 7 hours of sleep per night, they were almost 3 times as likely to get a cold as those who got 8 hours or more of sack time. (Not the best sleeper? Here are 10 tips to get your best night's sleep ever.)
In test-tube studies, the root astragalus (uh-STRAG-uh-lus) activates T-cells, the white blood cells that fight off viruses, and experts believe it can prevent colds in real life too.
"Astragalus seems to work very well, and your body doesn't develop a tolerance to it, so you can eat it daily," Dr. Horwitz says. Use the earthy root as a vegetable, chopping up a 3-inch piece and adding it to soup. Or try 250 mg in standardized capsules twice a day.
Check out our How to Prevent Anything center for more natural home remedies.
The oregano in your spaghetti sauce and the mustard on your turkey sandwich can boost your immune system, says Prevention advisory board member Dr. Tieraona Low Dog, the author of National Geographic's Life Is Your Best Medicine. In winter, she suggests, flavor bean and poultry dishes with oregano and thyme, and add 1/4 teaspoon of turmeric to 1 cup of plain yogurt for a spicy dip.
After people in a study at Loma Linda University consumed 6 tablespoons of sugar (whether in orange juice, honey, or sugary drinks), their infection-fighting white blood cells lost the ability to fend off bacteria and viruses. Your immune system stays depressed for several hours after you eat or drink sugar, so if you down a soda every few hours (3 servings could put you over the 6-tablespoon mark), your resistance will be lowered for much of the day.
If you're carrying extra pounds, the flu vaccine won't work as well, and if you do get a bug, you're likely to become sicker. After vaccination, antibodies against the flu increase normally in obese people but decline prematurely over the next few months, lowering protection.
"If you're obese, be really vigilant about hand washing and other preventive measures," says Peter Mancuso, PhD, associate professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan. "And even a 5 to 10 percent weight loss can help prevent all types of diseases."
If you come down with a virus, your doctor may tell you to drink plenty of fluids to reduce your symptoms. But Dr. Jamey Wallace, chief medical officer at Bastyr Center for Natural Health in Seattle, says staying hydrated may stave off infections.
"Your mucous membranes and the immune cells in their secretions defend against cold viruses, and they can't work as well if you're dehydrated," Dr. Wallace says. His advice: Divide your weight by 3. That's how many ounces of fluid you need daily, plus a glass of water for each caffeinated or alcoholic drink.
Viruses on one toothbrush can contaminate others it touches. Make sure your family's brushes are in a holder that keeps them apart, and let them dry thoroughly. (If you get a bug, you don't need to replace your brush: You already have antibodies against that virus.)
A gram a day of this old standby does help alleviate colds, Dr. Nahas found in a review of studies about integrative approaches to preventing colds. In adults, the result is a modest 8% reduction in symptoms. It doesn't sound like much, "but that can shorten your cold by 1 to 2 days," he says.
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