My husband keeps complaining that he is sick of being sick… well, winter is here, and as I keep telling my patients, it is the Venn diagram season of viruses. We are still seeing summer viruses and the winter viruses seem to be in full force.
There is not one surefire method of preventing or treating viruses, but here are some tips (aka phrases I repeat to patients, friends and family!):
Wash your hands. Hand washing is clearly critical. When you cannot wash well with soap and water, use a hand sanitizer. There is no need to use harsh anti-microbial soaps like those containing triclosan. They are not superior, and they can irritate skin (as a side note, they are bad for the environment).
Don’t touch your face. If you touch your face, those germs on your hands (from the keyboard, the phone, the last doorknob you touched), are now near your eyes, nose and mouth. You just brought the enemy to your doorstep.
Cough into your elbow. This way, the viral particles you are coughing are less likely to be on your hands, so when you go to the water cooler, remote control, grocery cart… you will be less likely to leave behind a viral load for the next guy.
Sleep. Chill for a minute. Sleep boosts your immune system. Stress is hard on your immune system. Couples who fight more tend to get more colds. Med students’ immune marker levels go down during exam time.
Zinc. Zinc helps boost the immune system. Studies suggest that zinc lozenges, if taken at the onset of symptoms, may reduce the duration of colds. In adults, about 30 mg a day of zinc may do the trick (that would be six 5mg lozenges). There is not really good data on kids. If your child is old enough to take lozenges (since they are a choking hazard), I would try 15-30 mg a day, depending on the age. Zinc can upset the stomach, and too much zinc can be harmful, so please talk with your doc if you are going to try this.
Echinacea, vitamin C. No good data to support this.
Vicks VapoRub. The menthol in it does something. Parents give improved cough ratings when they use this on their kids. I always remind parents to use menthol rubs under clothes to prevent a child from getting it anywhere near his eye, nose or mouth.
Elderberry. Now this is my new favorite. There are a few studies, (even a double-blinded, controlled one!) that show really remarkable effectiveness of elderberry, especially when it comes to fighting influenza. In vitro, it appears that elderberry has anti-viral and anti-oxidant properties. I cannot offer a standard dose, but based on the one small study, an adult could take elderberry syrup, about 15 ml, four times a day for 5 days. Again, talk to your doctor about this, especially if you are giving this to a child. There are lozenges that contain both elderberry and zinc. That is what I keep at home. Please note that elderberry comes from a plant, Sambucus. Eating the plant parts can be toxic, so don’t try to make your own elderberry supplements at home!
Honey. Buckwheat honey in particular has been shown to reduce cough and night time cough. The studies were done with just eating the honey. I tell parents they can spoon feed it or mix it in warm water and make a little “tea” for their kids. Remember kids under age 1 are advised to avoid honey consumption.
Saline. Huge fan. I recommend a sterile mist-spray with “normal saline,” or 0.9% saline. This is well-tolerated by small kids and adults alike. Use this as often as needed. Spray and blow. If your child will not blow, just spray it up there (and you do not need to stick the nozzle up your child’s nose. Just place it underneath his nose and spray. It will shoot up into his nostril and if he shakes his head in violent protest, you will not have ripped a nostril). I recommend one separate canister for each person in the house. During dry East Coast winters, I use this even when we are healthy. Just to keep the nares moist—especially for small kids who do not blow as well and who may stick a finger up there to get the dried, crusted booger. Then you get yourself a nosebleed. Note: read the ingredients to ensure it is preservative free. The preservatives can hinder your body’s natural ability to clear mucous.
Oscillococcinum . I have not tried this myself, but a recent-ish (2009) review found that its use may reduce flu symptoms by 0.28 days.
Probiotics. Lactobacillus and bifidobacter may help out… more and more data on probiotics. Difficult to say how much or which type since there are so many different ones out there. My general advice is: if you are going to take a probiotic, make sure you buy it from a place with high turnover. These are live organisms, and if they have been sitting at your local drug store for 2 years, you may be better off going to a health or natural foods store.