Yep, it's officially winter, and with that comes lots of warm fuzzy knits, darkness at 4 p.m.… and the inevitable dawning of cold and flu season. Germs and bugs wreak havoc on our jam-packed schedules, our skin, and every other element of our lives. Not to mention, double-fisting Gatorade and Tylenol PM isn't exactly our idea of fun. Naturally, we want to protect ourselves from getting sick, to avoid spreading nasty germs around, and to get better as quickly as possible if those bugs manage to sneak past our well-crafted defenses.
That's why we consulted two doctors who know how to prevent and treat colds and flus: Dr. Eduardo Dolhun, MD, founder of the Dolhun Clinic and creator of Drip Drops ORS, and Dr. John Cranshaw, also of the Dolhun Clinic and former Chief of Medicine at St. Luke’s Hospital in San Francisco. They've got everything you ever wanted to know about colds, flus, and keeping yourself healthy. Follow their advice and a sniffle-proof, fever-free season could be yours.
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Illustrations by Naomi Abel
How can I keep myself from getting sick? And do I really need a flu shot?
You're not imagining it — people really do catch colds more often as the temperature drops. That's because the viruses that lead to colds and flus thrive in cooler temperatures, leading to higher transmission rates. Short of avoiding all human contact, the best way to protect yourself from colds is to practice good hygiene. Keep your hands clean, lay off the cigarettes (smoking increases the risk of catching a cold), and avoid rubbing your eyes. ("A sick person rubs his nose, touches the elevator button, you touch the button, and then you touch your eyes," Dolhun explains. "Suddenly, the virus is in your respiratory system.")
Both doctors agree that the flu shot is a must. “This year looks to be a bad one for flu," Cranshaw says. "The flu has already had more exposure than usual, and the strain we are seeing, H3N2, is particularly nasty." The good news? This brutal bug is among one of three strains included in this year's vaccine. It's recommended for flu-vulnerable people such as pregnant women and the elderly, but it's a smart move for everyone.
Not convinced? Crenshaw recalls a patient who turned down the vaccine because he was young and healthy, only to catch the flu. "The next time I saw him, he was on a ventilator in the ICU, and then he was dead," he says. "I don't like to push anything on my patients, but when people ask about the flu shot, I share that story."
What kills more germs, soap or hand sanitizer?
Eliminating germs is key for preventing sickness, but unfortunately, most of us don't wash our hands well enough. "When your doctor recommends hand-washing, it doesn't mean just a quick squirt of soap," Cranshaw says. "It means applying a good amount, then rubbing it on your hands for at least 20 seconds." And, forget about anti-bacterial soaps. "They're a marketing phenomenon," Dolhun says. "A regular bar of Ivory soap outperforms so-called anti-bacterial soaps."
Still, both doctors agree that hand sanitizers are more effective than soap. "Alcohol gels and hand sanitizers are the best," Dolhun says. "Put them in your purse, stash them everywhere, and use them." Look for an alcohol content level of between 60 and 70 percent, which studies have shown to be most effective in killing germs.
What about vitamins and supplements?
Supplements can keep any cold at bay, right? Wrong. "I always caution against breaking the bank and buying a bunch of supplements that don't work," says Dolhun. "That said, zinc has been proven to help boost the immune system." Cranshaw agrees, adding that vitamin C, echinacea, and zinc are the most promising supplements — but still, they're no magic bullet. "The data on the effectiveness of these is pretty poor at best," he admits.
Managing stress and paying attention to nutrition, however, can help you stay strong. “The best way to boost your immune system is to be happy and smile," says Dolhun. “But after that, make sure your hydration is good. Eat lots of fresh vegetables and fruits." Garlic and green tea have the potential to help, but your best bet is to catch up on Z's. "Proper sleep helps you maximize your immune defenses," he adds. "Sleep deprivation makes you more susceptible to illness." If you want to stay strong, head to bed early.
Ugh, I'm sick. Now what should I do?
Once you've fallen ill, the key is to treat the illness right away. "After 72 hours, even medical-grade antivirals won't be as effective," Dolhun says. When it comes to treatment, the best you can hope for is to relieve symptoms — no over-the-counter treatment will shorten the duration or severity of your illness. While some prescription medications can help, the doctors tend to recommend those only for high-risk people. "We're already seeing resistant viruses," Cranshaw says. "The more people who take them, the less effective they'll be. And these medications aren't widely effective to begin with."
When it comes to feeling better in the meantime, turns out that Mom was right: you should rest up and drink fluids. Try chicken soup, tea with honey, or an oral rehydrating solution like Drip Drops. Proper hydration is key, since that helps move mucus out of the body. "If you let mucus stagnate, it becomes a petri dish," Dolhun adds. "That's when you can develop a secondary infection — why you can start to feel better and all of a sudden, you feel worse."
And, while it's usually a good idea to stay fit, now's the time to ease off the workouts. Let your body's energy go to fighting the sickness. "Listen to your body," Dolhun says. "If you're feeling crummy, you should rest. I see people go from zero to 60 in no time after they've been sick, but I recommend ramping things up slowly."
What kind of medicine will help me most?
It all depends on what you're hoping to treat. Fevers exist to help your immune system fight the virus, but pain relievers minimize the discomfort they cause. Dr. Dolhun usually recommends Advil (ibuprofen) over Tylenol (acetaminophen). "Both help with pain and fever reduction, but I generally recommend ibuprofen because it can help with that stuffiness that people feel," he says. If you have any gastrointestinal problems, kidney issues, or liver disease, though, go with acetaminophen — it's easier on the stomach. Just check other products for acetaminophen, Dolhun says, since too much can cause liver failure. "People have suffered from accidental overdoses when taking Tylenol with other cold treatments that already contain the same ingredient," he warns. Read labels carefully before popping a pill.
As far as over-the-counter cough medicines go, bad news: they're not all that, says Cranshaw. "I'm not a big believer in cough medicines," he says. "They haven't been shown to be very effective." For a runny nose, look for a decongestant like Benadryl, which can dry things up a bit. Got a sore throat? Gargle with salt water and take an appropriate pain reliever. "Sore throat is pain, just like a headache is pain, he adds. "I take Advil or Aleve when I have a sore throat, and it gets me through the night pretty well."
Feed a cold, starve a fever — what does that mean?
According to Dolhun, this age-old advice has more to do with how the patient is feeling than a way to treat the illness. "When you have a cold — versus a high fever, which generally means the flu — you’re not as sick. Focus on staying at home and hydrating, getting proper nutrition, and just getting better." Running a fever? Focus on hydration, even if you're too ill to get food down.
As far as eating chicken soup goes, both Dolhun and Cranshaw say it's a go. "Naturally made chicken soup has a lot of sodium, so it hydrates really well," says Dolhun. "That's what you need when you get sick." Herbal teas (he likes Celestial Seasonings Red Zinger) and honey can also help. "In this fast-paced, push-through-it culture, some of the basics are often forgotten," he says. "So be gentle on yourself and give yourself a lot of TLC. Give your body a fighting chance."
When should I call my doctor?
Most colds just need time to clear up, but you should contact a doctor if you have a severe cough, a high fever that won't go away, or you've been sick for a week. "For somebody otherwise healthy, your doctor will probably say, 'Yep, you have a cold. Go home and take care of yourself,'" says Cranshaw. "Anybody who is really miserable — getting worse, not able to keep food or fluids down, or with a fever over 101 degrees — should talk to a doctor or nurse. I bet they'll appreciate hearing from you."
One last note: even though you may start to feel better, you could be contagious for at least 24 hours after a fever disappears. "You shed those viruses even after the fever is gone," Cranshaw says. So stay home for one extra sick day, and you may keep others from getting sick, too.