Your throat feelslike a cross between sandpaper and raw meat. Your nose must be training for a marathon. A percussion section has taken over the inside of your head. Your cheeks are on fire. Yes, it's cold and flu season, which officially plagues us from November to March. Contrary to what your mother might say, cold weather doesn't cause our sniffles, but it does chase us indoors, giving us more opportunities to catch them from other people.
Viruses cause flu and colds, both respiratory infections, but flu can lead to serious infections, like pneumonia. Colds start with a scratchy, sore throat, followed by sneezing and a runny nose and perhaps a slightly elevated temperature. Coughing develops days later. Flu comes on suddenly with a headache, dry cough and chills. Symptoms intensify rapidly and usually expand to include high fever, muscle pains, fatigue and weakness.
Colds are caused by too many different viruses to make a vaccine feasible, but vaccines do exist for flu. Dr. Andrew Weil recommends flu shots for those over 65, anyone with a weakened immune or respiratory system, nursing-home residents and health-care workers. For young children and pregnant women, he suggests consulting a doctor.
Be prepared to ride the cold out. Symptoms can last from two days to two weeks, but you may find some relief from various sources. Your doctor may prescribe drugs to make you more comfortable, but they won't shorten the duration. And, they may cause side effects. Be sure to read all instructions carefully.
Definitely don't bother asking for a quick fix of antibiotics. They won't help fight a cold, and may cause more harm. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, "While antibiotics can kill bacteria, they do not work against viruse— and it is viruses that cause colds, the flu and most sore throats." Antibiotic overuse has led to new resistant bacteria, making it more difficult to treat previously manageable illnesses. The problem, of both over-demand by patients and over-prescribing by doctors, is so severe that the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control have launched antibiotic resistance campaigns aimed at health-care professionals and the public.
If an antibiotic is appropriate, follow directions and take all of the medication. Skipping doses or stopping when you feel better may cause the drug to miss some bacteria, allowing them to become resistant. This could be bad news for you the next time you are sick, and it contributes to the overall problem of antibiotic resistance. Also, never take an antibiotic, or any other medicine, prescribed for someone else or one saved from a prior illness.
With over-the-counter drugs, you can treat yourself. Carefully choose what's appropriate for your symptoms. Compare the active ingredients and be sure you're not "doubling up" by buying two medications with the same components. Watch for side effects. Some non-prescription drugs interfere with sleep, which you really need in order to fight the infection.
Consider natural treatments. Weil suggests vitamin C for prevention. At the first symptoms, eat two cloves of raw garlic, or take a dropper of echinacea in warm water four times a day. You might also try zinc lozenges or, for congestion, ginger root tea.
Aromatherapy can also relieve congestion. Try a few drops of eucalyptus or rosemary oil in a bowl of steaming water. There are also homeopathic remedies for colds, some claim to actually fight the virus. Remember: It is probably safer not to combine different forms of treatment. Find one that works for you; one treatment doesn't work for everyone, whether it's natural or pharmaceutical.
Of course, avoiding colds and the flu altogether is the best medicine. WebMD (mywebmd.com) offers "12 Tips to Prevent Cold and Flu the 'Natural' Way":
• Wash your hands or, if no sink is available, rub your hands together
very hard for a minute.
• Don't cover your sneezes and
coughs with your hands. Use a tissue and toss it immediately, or turn away from people and cough into the air.
• Don't touch your face. Viruses enter through the eyes, nose, or mouth.
• Drink plenty of fluids.
• Take a sauna. Air hotter than 80 degrees is too hot for viruses to survive.
• Get fresh air. Central heating dries you out, and you are exposed to more people (and their germs) indoors.
• Do aerobic exercise regularly—increase the body's natural virus-killing cells.
• Eat foods containing phytochemicals: dark green, red, and yellow vegetables and fruits.
• Eat yogurt, which contains beneficial bacteria that may stimulate the immune system.
• Don't smoke.
• Cut alcohol consumption.
• Relax. Relaxation is a learnable skill that can increase your immune system response. Train yourself to picture something pleasant or calming for 30 minutes a day.
Deborah Noel is the wellness columnist for the Jackson Free Press.