I have had SO many patients this year come in with lingering colds and upper respiratory tract infections and have had patients report that family members have had the flu repeatedly. With the abundance of viral infections going around, I decided to re-share an article I wrote last year on preventing colds and flus. I added information about an extra herb that I have been using personally to prevent getting sick this year.
What is the difference between a cold and flu?
Colds and flus are both viral infections that occur yearly during the fall and winter seasons. The most important step in preventing colds and flus is to wash your hands and cough into your arm, not your hand. Since they are viral infections, it is important to know that using antibiotics will not help with the symptoms. Antibiotics should only be taken when a bacterial infection is suspected since taking antibiotics for viral infections does not actually help and increases the likelihood of developing antibiotic resistant bacteria.
The main symptom differences:
Cold (less severe): sore throat, cough, runny nose, nasal congestion, fever is uncommon, usually lasts no longer than a week
Flu (more severe): fever, chills, runny nose, muscle and body aches, sore throat, fatigue, possible vomiting and diarrhea, can feel ill for a few weeks
Simple tips for preventing both:
- Probiotics. Did you know that most of our immune cells are in our intestines? Probiotics strengthen the immune system to help you fight off any viruses or bacteria you may come into contact with. Taking probiotics daily is an easy way to help minimize colds and flus for the entire family.
- Increase your antioxidants (Vitamins A, C, E, Selenium and ZincA combination of Vitamin A, C, E, Selenium and Zinc is one of my go-to’s for preventing colds and flus and fighting them if you do get sick. You can use supplements for higher doses, but the most important thing is trying to consume them in your food throughout the winter. Please note that women who are planning on becoming pregnant or who are pregnant should talk to their ND before consuming vitamin A.
Vitamin A: Sweet potato, squash, pumpkin, carrots, collards, swiss chard, kale, goat cheese, fish, eggs, cod liver oil, organic butter (not margarine!)
Vitamin C: Fruits and veggies. Our body does not store vitamin C so I often have patients take vitamin C supplements because we use it for so many different functions. Taking vitamin C on a regular basis helps strengthen your immune system, form collagen (helps build skin, hair and nails), increases the absorption of iron, speeds wound healing, and is a major antioxidant protecting us from oxidative damage which is the cause of many chronic diseases.
Vitamin E: Nuts and seeds (especially almonds and sunflower seeds), spinach, swiss chard, fish, sweet potato, butternut squash, avocado, olive oil, eggs
Selenium: Nuts and seeds (especially brazil nuts—one per day gives you approximately 50 micrograms which is just short of the daily recommended intake. Other high sources are chia seeds and sunflower seeds), oysters, fish, wild meat, mushrooms, whole grains
Zinc: Oysters, whole grains, nuts and seeds, wild meat
- Vitamin D. Vitamin D helps regulate the immune response and is also important in preventing the winter blues. I usually have patients start vitamin D supplementation around November and continue until the spring. I recommend 2000-5000 IU per day for adults and 500-2000IU per day for kids depending on age and weight.
- Fruits and veggies! Fruits and veggies contain tons of bioflavonoids that help fight viruses and inflammation. Eat as many different colours as you can, and focus on berries for the fruit. It is important to try and get at least 5-10 servings of veggies per day and 1-2 servings of fruit. A serving of veggies is equivalent to ½ cup fresh or frozen or 1 cup leafy greens.
- Decrease sugar. Sugar curbs the immune systems ability to fight infections for a few hours after you eat it. Minimizing sugar will help you from being susceptible to catching a virus. Eliminating sugar if you have a cold or flu will help quicken the recovery time.
- Decrease stress. Stress increases cortisol, decreasing your immune response. There is plenty of research now showing that people who have more stress are more susceptible to catching colds and flus. Decreasing stress is one of the most important ways to prevent colds and flus. Relaxing activities, exercise or adrenal supportive herbs and supplements are all keys to combating stress.
- Water helps your body flush inflammatory metabolites and toxins through the kidneys. Drinking enough water through cold and flu season helps your immune system focus on combating any viruses you may encounter. The ideal amount is 8-10 glasses per day.
- Neti rinse. Using a saline rinse helps clear out bacteria and viruses from the nasal passage. Start as soon as you feel you are coming down with something.
- Sleep is when you body is able to recover and regenerate. Getting 7-8 hours of restful sleep per night will give your body the resistance it needs to withstand viruses. If you do get a cold or flu, sleeping as much as you can will shorten the length of your illness.
- Herbal teas or tinctures. There are much stronger herbs for when you do get a cold or flu, but the five I have listed below are generally safe (unless you have an allergy to the plants) and help prevent getting sick.
Elderberry: Specifically for treating and preventing colds, elderberry can be used as a syrup for kids or tincture for adults. Elderberry is extremely safe and can be taken throughout the winter to prevent cold and flus (usually 1 teaspoon per day) or 3 teaspoons per day when you are sick.
Thyme: One of my favourite savory teas, thyme has anti-viral, anti-bacterial properties and is used to treat coughs. This is a great tea to sip throughout the winter season.
Echinacea: This herb has potent immune enhancing properties and can be used at the start of a cold or flu to decrease the length.
Lemon balm: An anti-viral herb that makes a lovely tea. It is part of the mint family, and also helps with digestion and calming the nerves. People who have hypothyroidism should use this herb with caution as it may suppress thyroid function.
Andrographis: I am around patients with colds and flus every day and this anti-viral herb is my personal go-to whenever I start feeling a bit under the weather. It is one of the best herbs to prevent a viral infection and to shorten the duration of your illness if you do get sick. This is also an excellent herb for lingering coughs!