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Avoiding winter colds

When winter arrives, colds can too. Many people opt for flu jabs hoping they will keep the more serious flu at bay. But there are other ways to look after ourselves, our children and elderly relatives without resorting to vaccines.

Regular aerobic exercise is a good way to ward off colds and flu
- Kathryn Borg

Firstly, a word about flu vaccines. An analysis of 31 studies on flu vaccines used between 1967 and 2011 concluded that 67 per cent of the time they were effective, in particular on immune-compromised adults.

They also protected 70 per cent of healthy adults aged 18 to 46, and 66 per cent of children aged two to six (Lancet Infect. Dis., 2012).

Interestingly, they had the least protective effect among the elderly. A person aged 65 or older is more than 10 times as likely to die from influenza-associated symptoms than someone aged 50 to 64, even after being vaccinated (Lancet Infect. Dis., 2012).

A point to note is that most of the positive studies regarding flu vaccines were paid for by vaccine manufacturers. A review of 274 vaccine studies found that all of those sponsored by the manufacturer concluded the vaccines were successful. Almost none of those that had been independently sponsored did so.

Let’s look at ways of preventing flu by introducing protective habits in our daily lives. These habits are a way of life and will not give an immediate fix to a problem. But they are shown to be a long-term fix, so if they become part of your life, according to research, there is more chance that you will prevent flu or at least reduce the symptoms.

Stress reduction is an important consideration, especially for those with stressful jobs, or those who have experienced a traumatic or stressful time recently. Stress management techniques, such as guided imagery, meditation and yoga, may help reduce cold and flu symptoms (J. Psychosom. Res., 2001).

Taking regular saunas also may cut your chances of catching colds. This is the suggestion of an Austrian study. Fifty volunteers were split into a sauna-bathing group and a no-sauna control group. After a six-month period, the sauna group had shown to have considerably fewer colds and flu. (Ann. Med., 1990).

Vitamin C is an antioxidant vitamin and can greatly reduce the duration of a cold or flu as well as a cold’s severity and regularity (Cochrane Database Syst. Rev., 2007). Zinc can also reduce a cold’s severity.

If you act fast when the cold begins by using a zinc lozenge, syrup or tablet, it may help the cold you have. Results of 13 trials, involving nearly 1,000 people, showed that those who took zinc within 24 hours of their symptoms starting had shorter and milder colds than those who didn’t take it (Cochrane Database Syst. Rev., 2011).

Regular aerobic exercise is a good way to ward off colds and flu. Those who carry out at least 20 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise – such as jogging, biking or swimming – on five or more days per week tend to suffer less from cold and flu symptoms than those who exercise just one day a week.

The sunshine vitamin (Vitamin D) may be useful for reducing the risk of colds and flu. In a large US study, people with the lowest levels of vitamin D reported having significantly more recent colds or bouts of flu.

The risks were highest in those with chronic respiratory disorders such as asthma and emphysema (Arch. Intern. Med., 2009).

Saline nasal irrigation (SNI), a salt water solution used to flush out the nasal passages, could also be useful against colds and flu. In a trial of 401 children suffering from a cold, SNI users reported fewer illness days, school absences and complications, when compared with the medication-only group (Arch. Otolaryngol. Head Neck Surg., 2008).

Propolis, a gummy substance collected by honey-bees from leaf buds and tree bark for use in the hive, could be helpful for preventing colds and shortening their duration. It is also known as the natural antibiotic (Rom. J. Virol., 1995).

Finally, probiotics, which are healthy bacteria in capsule form, have been associated with 12 per cent fewer acute upper respiratory tract infections, such as colds and flu, when compared to a placebo (Cochrane Database Syst. Rev., 2011).

In addition, if you do get a serious bout of flu, there are herbal remedies to help reduce its severity according to studies. Garlic was used in a trial of 146 volunteers who took one capsule each day. This led to 63 per cent fewer colds and 70 per cent fewer sick days compared with those taking a placebo (Adv. Ther., 2001).

Other herbs used in studies include ginseng, arstragalus and echinacea.

Instead of relying on a vaccine, perhaps we should take responsibility for our lifestyles and help ourselves to avoid colds and flu. The changes certainly would not cause side effects and can only promote a healthier person at whatever age.

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