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An Ounce of Prevention for the Common Cold

In my last article, we talked about different types of respiratory tract infections (viral and bacterial), and how to treat them. In this one, we will look at how to prevent respiratory tract infections. After all, as they say, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" – especially since the common cold has no cure!

First, a word about how colds are spread. Colds are caused by viruses. The virus spreads from one person to another through "respiratory droplets." These are the tiny droplets of saliva or mucus that come out of your mouth or nose when you sneeze, cough, or even when you talk. Respiratory droplets are spread over a distance of about three feet when you cough or sneeze. The virus can then be inhaled by someone around you, putting them at risk for infection; or it can land on a nearby surface. The virus can live on surfaces (hands, towels, toys, countertops, utensils, etc.) for about three hours, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

So the bottom line is this: you don't catch colds from rainy weather, cold weather, going outside with wet hair or forgetting to wear a coat or hat. You catch colds from people!

One way, therefore, to avoid catching a cold is to stay away from sick people. Although extremely effective, this solution is not always possible. You should make a special effort to stay away from sick people if your immune system isn't working properly – for example, if you are on chemotherapy or other immune system-suppressing medications.

If you need to be around people who are ill, take the following precautions:

1. Wash your hands frequently. Wash them after you shake hands with an ill person, and after you cough or sneeze or blow your nose. Wash with soap for at least 15 seconds (about the time it takes to sing "Yankee Doodle"). You can check out another hand-washing jingle on my YouTube channel.

2. Clean objects that come in contact with sick people. Use a cleaner that says it will kill cold viruses, or else make a dilute bleach solution (1 part bleach to 10 parts water) to clean surfaces or toys. Use paper towels for hand-drying, or else give the sick person their own hand towel. Don't share cups, glasses or utensils with sick people.

3. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth unless you have washed your hands. The "mucus membranes" (i.e., the lining of the nose and mouth) are particularly vulnerable to infection.

4. Don't smoke! The respiratory tract is lined with little hair-like projections called "cilia." The cilia help sweep viruses and bacteria out of your airways. Cigarette smoke paralyzes the cilia, preventing them from protecting you from infection.

5. Exercise regularly. There is some evidence that regular, aerobic exercise (like walking, jogging, biking or swimming) can help to protect you from the common cold. It is likely, but not as well supported by evidence, that eating healthy and getting adequate sleep can protect you as well.

6. Manage your stress. Stress weakens the immune system, increasing your susceptibility to infection.

Teach your children to use a tissue to wipe or blow their nose (rather than their hands or a sleeve), and to cough or sneeze into their elbow (rather than their hands). Also teach them to wash their hands or sanitize them after blowing, coughing or sneezing.

What about vitamins or supplements?

There is some evidence that vitamin C 500 mg daily can help prevent the common cold. Echinacea, an herbaceous flowering plant in the daisy family, might be helpful, but the evidence is inconclusive. Zinc, vitamin E and vitamin D do NOT appear to help in cold prevention.

In summary, cold prevention really boils down to good hygiene and building a strong immune system. Follow these tips, and you will be well-armed to face the coming cold and flu season!

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