The cold and flu bugs are swarming.
This year, there will be 1 billion colds and 95 million cases of the flu in the United States alone. But while a billion colds is a statistic, two colds — the likely number you’ll catch this winter — is a tragedy. Getting sick just twice can put you weeks behind at work and in the gym. It’s also a leading cause of being quarantined in the spare room.
Sorry, science doesn’t have a cure yet. But doctors have figured out how these viruses conspire to make you feel lousy. Thwart the bugs’ insidious game plan and you’ll not only get sick less often, but also bounce back faster. So have a look at the sad, sniveling life of a common virus, then take the necessary steps to squash it like the bug that it is.
A Question of Contact
If your partner starts sneezing, the fellow in the next cubicle begins hacking like a coal miner, or the kids run a fever, heighten your alert. They might be packing a cold or flu virus, one of a horde of strains that plague people all winter. Those bugs want you next, but there are only three ways to get in: your nose, mouth, and eyes.
Your Best Defense: Keep your hands clean. Viruses are often passed from an infected person to a phone receiver or some other surface that other people touch. In the case of the flu, they fly through the air and stick to things. To keep a virus from latching on to you, wash your paws every time you shake hands or wipe your kid’s nose.
Invasion Too bad you didn’t duck when your kid coughed, or wash up before licking your fingers during that fried-chicken lunch. Within minutes, the virus you picked up or inhaled has settled into its spacious new home: you. Don’t worry; it’s not too late to ward off trouble.
Your Best Defense:First, get a flu shot. Second, from September through March — prime cold and flu season — drink even more water than usual. The mucous membranes that line the upper respiratory tract, one of your body’s first defenses, work best when thoroughly moist, says Dr. Mary Hardy of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Eight 8-ounce glasses of water every day is the minimum; drink more and you’re ahead of the game.
Soon after entering, the virus has worked its way from your mouth or nose through the mucous membranes to your body’s cells. The bug fools the special receptors that act as doorways, then walks on in and makes itself comfortable — and you miserable.
Your Best Defense: Start every day this cold season with a walk around the block. Contrary to what your mother told you, brief exposure to cold — after a good warmup — stimulates the immune system. Exercise can also help you feel better, as long as you don’t overdo it. Although a study reports that working out neither lengthens nor shortens recovery time, the feel-good hormones you produce, called endorphins, will boost your mood.
After attacking a cell, the virus injects its genetic material inside and copies itself. This process takes about 12 hours, and you won’t actually feel sick until two or three of these cycles are complete.
Your Best Defense: Within 24 to 48 hours of a flu strike, ask your doctor for amantadine — it’ll cut the duration of your misery. Tylenol will help aches and fever. As soon as you notice cold symptoms — runny nose, scratchy throat, fatigue — take a decongestant. But only one dose. The active ingredient, usually a pseudoephedrine combination, will open up the nasal passages and help your body flush away the invaders. Australian researchers found that taking a decongestant just once cut symptoms by 13 percent.
All the copies the virus made now break out of the host cell and look for other cells to infect. This period, which lasts three to five days, is when you’ll feel worst. Your nose starts running to wash away a cold virus, and you sneeze — another way the body tries to expel the infection. Your body tries to burn out the flu virus; that’s why you have fever, chills, and fatigue.
Your Best Defense: If you feel really horrible, take a day off to rest. If you’re still functional, just take it easy, cutting your usual workout in half and skipping after-work drinks. (Alcohol will make you feel worse.) Also: Wipe, don’t blow. Blowing your nose can clog your sinuses with germ-laden mucus. You’ll feel better faster if you let your body flush out the virus naturally.
Get Better — Or Worse
All those symptoms that make you feel lousy — sore throat, headache, congestion — should be gone within a week, the average time it takes for the body’s infection-fighting forces to eradicate a mild virus. But if you haven’t been following our feel-good advice, an infection can move deeper into your upper respiratory tract to infiltrate your lungs and drag on for another week or more. If this happens, you’ll be coughing — another attempt by your body to rid itself of the nasty virus.
Your Best Defense: See your doctor. He may prescribe medication that can help keep you from developing a secondary infection, such as bronchitis or pneumonia.
Get Out & Stay Out
A whole army of cells within your body has been working since the initial contact to suppress and destroy the virus — one of countless viruses you could be exposed to this winter. Your body’s cells then work feverishly to clean up the mess that’s left behind. The only things that remain once the infection has been cleared out are memory cells. These will help protect you from that same virus for the rest of your life, making it much less likely you’ll suffer from that strain again. Your collection of memory cells is the reason you now get fewer colds than you did as a kid.
Your Best Defense: Go back to your usual activities, as long as you’re feeling better and symptoms are under control.