How to Avoid the Cold & Flu this Winter

Every year around this time I start getting the same question, “how do I keep from getting the cold and flu this winter”. It’s a great question and after all, who wouldn’t want to know. Getting sick is an unpleasant experience. You have to take off of work and don’t even get to go out and have any fun, but let’s face it, you’ve looked better and probably shouldn’t go out anyway. So, if you’re interested in avoiding the missed work days, stuffed up head, runny nose, and chills, keep reading you’ll probably be surprised by my recommendations!

Thinning Out the Mucus

I’m sure you’ve noticed that not everyone ends up getting sick, even when exposure to bacteria/viruses are equal. This is because it’s not just about exposure, it’s about how effective we are at getting rid of the pathogen that we’ve been exposed to. There are natural barriers we have in place to keep bacteria and viruses from hanging around too long in the body. One of those natural barriers is called mucus.

Mucus is secreted by respiratory tissues in the naso-pharynx, sinuses, and lungs to trap bacteria and viruses. Once trapped the mucus is expelled through blowing the nose or expectoration (cough). Unfortunately, this mucus can become thick and viscous, preventing these trapped bacteria/viruses from leaving and allowing them to proliferate. Anything we can do to thin out mucus and keep it flowing out of the body will help in preventing bacteria/flu proliferation.

Water is natures solvent and helps to keep mucus secretions thin. It’s best to get in approximately half your body weight in ounces each day. Keeping the body warm and the digestive fire strong is another good way to thin mucus. During the winter it’s easy for the body to get cold and for mucus secretions to get thick and viscous. One of the best ways to keep the body warm is to consume warming foods. Foods such as oats, garlic, onions, leeks, chicken, beef, lamb, fennel, asparagus, turnips, carrots, chickpeas, beans, nuts, figs, raisins, and dates all have warming qualities.

Robust Immune Response

Strengthening the immune system is something that people typically want to do when they have a cold or flu. Unfortunately, by that time it’s already too late and the infection has done its damage. However, priming the immune system prior to being exposed to the bacteria or virus will improve your chances that you do not succumb to an illness.

One of my favorite herbs for strengthening the immune system is echinacea. Echinacea is immune stimulating, inflammation modulating, and antimicrobial; however, for echinacea to be really effective is needs to be of high quality and of certain species. If you’re considering taking an echinacea supplement, please contact your Naturopath or herbalist to make sure you’re getting the right product. Additionally, nutrients  like vitamin A, vitamin C, and zinc are necessary for proper immune function and are often found in combination formulas with echinacea.

Probably one of the most effective ways to keep the immune system robust, is to keep your stress levels low and to make sure your getting plenty of sleep. Please see my previous article on healthy sleep habits.

Fever is the Cure

The second most common question I get is, “what do I do to get over being sick”? Well, the most effective tool there is for getting over an infectious illness is a fever. There is no herb, vitamin, or medication that’s going to fight off the cold and flu more effectively. A healthy fever will slow the replication of viruses, thin mucus for expectoration, and kill bacteria and viruses.

So, the first thing I recommend all my patients do is to stop taking antipyrectics such as ibuprofen, aspirin, and acetaminophen to lower a fever. Besides the life threatening Reye’s Syndrome that can happen from giving babies and children asprin during a fever, you’re potentially going to prolong your illness by lowering a fever. Ideally, our bodies are able to develop fevers between 102 and 103 degrees Fahrenheit as this is the optimal temperature for stimulating the immune system and killing bacteria and viruses.

Fever can become dangerous it it gets too high, especially in infants and babies. Lowering a fever is necessary in infants less than 3 months with a temperature > 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit and babies less than 3 years old with a fever > 102.4 Fahrenheit. If this is the case, please call your child’s pediatrician for treatment recommendations.