nutrition prevention for colds + flu

Since I’ve gone back to work (just since late July), I have lost track of the number of times my family has gotten sick. My girls have both had fevers, ear infections, colds, more fevers with then vomiting and many trips to the doctor along the way. My husband got sick for a full week and then it took another week to recover. It’s a good thing that usually only one of them is sick at a time, but then they pass it to the next person and it seems like for 2+ months now someone is constantly sick. It makes for a worrisome and stressful few months.

I like to pride myself on not getting sick, but then of course, I came down with a cold a couple weeks ago. Oddly enough, I was meeting with a student the same afternoon regarding his hope and need to prevent catching anything this year- when I started experiencing symptoms.

It’s not uncommon that around this time every year I get asked, what can I do to prevent getting a cold or the flu? Since the chances of getting a cold or the flu when you become exposed is incredibly likely, everyone wants to do and know as much as they can to prevent altogether or lower their risk of getting ill.

I get the concern; I don’t want to miss work and then have to play catch up either. I don’t want my children not feeling well because as a parent you want nothing but for them to feel well again. And if the whole family gets it, gosh the amount of extra cleaning, laundry, and disinfecting that needs to be done can be overwhelming and exhausting.

We should note some differences between the “common” cold and the flu.

While both are caused by viruses that infect our respiratory cells and trigger a response (or fight) from our immune system, they are different types of viruses.  

According to the National Institute of Allergy & Infection Disease, there are approximately 200 different types of cold viruses, rhinovirus often being the most prevalent, and the peak season for contracting cold viruses is between April to May and again in September. Children in the U.S. tend to have 6-10 colds each year and teens & adults have 2-4 annually.

Flu virus, on the other hand, have 3 different types – influenza A, B & C. Influenza A is the one that causes most flu outbreaks each year which its peak season ranging from Dec-Feb but can last all the way until May. 

{myth buster: it’s a myth that cold weather or wet weather can get you sick. During these times, you are more likely to be ‘cooped up inside’ along with others and it’s easier for viruses to spread from one to another}

The flu virus has two different proteins on its surface which is what causes the virus to spread within your respiratory system and these proteins can change or adapt over time. When your body comes in contact with the adapted virus, it looks like a new invader that your immune system hasn’t seen before. So even if you had been vaccinated against the flu last year, you do not have antibodies built up to protect you from these new version of the flu virus. This is why we need a flu vaccine each year.

Speaking of the flu vaccine, every year we hear moans and groans about the need for the flu vaccine. It’s not only a matter of your protection but for everyone else’s, especially young children or older adults as each year the flu causes numerous hospitalizations and even deaths across the country.

The flu vaccine is essentially a prediction from the U.S. Public Health Advisory Committee regarding what the upcoming year’s flu virus will be. As there are different strains of flu you can imagine the difficulty in making this prediction especially knowing the virus is smart and can modify its structure over time.

The flu vaccine is an inactive, or non-living, version of the predicted virus, at least for the injection- meaning you cannot get sick from it. Your body can utilize this as an identifier and start to build antibodies to protect you from when and if you do come in contact with the virus. Those that receive the flu vaccine, again since it’s a prediction, may still contact the flu, but when/ if you do get it, it is likely not as severe and does not last as long.

In addition to getting the flu vaccine, the best way to prevent ‘catching’ a virus from the cold or flu is through frequent hand washing.

Both the cold viruses and the flu spread by contact with secretions that contain the virus (think doorknobs, faucets, toilet handles, and then touching your eyes, mouth, nose, are all pathways for the virus to enter your body). Therefore, in addition to getting the flu vaccine every year, frequent hand washing is the next best method to prevent getting sick, the more you wash your hands, the more likely you are cleaning them from potentially carry the virus around and getting yourself sick or spreading it to other surfaces and exposing others.  

Airborne transmission is also possible, think sneezing and coughing that expels droplets that you or someone else breathes in. I know it sounds disgusting, but it just helps illustrate how easily and almost secretly we are being exposed to these pathogens. 

Since our modern day medicine may not offer the best prevention at this time, we often look for additional or supplemental sources to help protect us.

{Always check with your provider before beginning any supplement regimen}.

Garlic

Some evidence suggests taking garlic may help prevent colds or reduce the number of colds, however the research is limited to really recommend it. Garlic may have immune supporting properties, but it can interact with a variety of different medications.

Ginseng

Asian ginseng may have immune stimulant properties that may help prevent getting a cold, and even help boost the effectiveness of the flu vaccine by increasing antibody response. Taking 100 mg daily for 4 weeks prior to the vaccine & 8 weeks after may reduce the risk of getting sick.

American ginseng- and specifically an extract of it called Cold fX – taken 200 mg twice daily over 3-4 months may decrease the risk of getting multiple colds in one season and have reduced severity and duration.

Zinc

While there’s some support that zinc prevents the rhinovirus from replicating in a lab, but there’s no evidence of zinc supplements actually preventing a cold.  Some initial research suggests taking zinc with selenium may improve response to the flu vaccine and reduce the chance of getting sick in the nutrition deficient elderly individuals, but this does not carry through for healthy adults with a sufficient diet. 

Vitamin C

Probably the most well-known, well- promoted (but misconceived) nutrient for preventing colds and flu. Vitamin C may be helpful with immune function by increasing some antibody activity, function, mobility, and production, but most studies do not conclude that vitamin C prevents colds, even with amounts of up to 1 gram per day. Unfortunately, even eating foods rich in vitamin C does not lessen your chances of getting colds or flu. 

Vitamin D

In 2017, some clinical research demonstrated a 12% reduction in respiratory tract infections in adults taking supplemental vitamin D. For individuals who had lower levels of vitamin D, the risk reduction was even great (42%). The exact recommended dose was not clear, but taking vitamin D daily or weekly seemed more effective than taking larger doses at a single time. The findings seemed to be supportive in younger populations as well. Children ages 1-16 had 40% less risk of infection. Additional studies with larger sample sizes are still needed.

Probiotics

Some of the newer, more promising, and safest use of supplements stems from research supporting beneficial bacteria called probiotics in preventing upper respiratory tract infections. Not all supplemental varieties of probiotics are the same – ranging from the amounts and types of various bacterial strains

Milk fortified with a few probiotic varieties (Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG  or Culturelle Every Day Health,  Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium animalis) reduced rates of respiratory tract infection in children in daycares.  The probiotics seem to simulate immunity, reducing symptoms and shortening its duration.

Bifidiobacterium is another strain that seems promising in additional age groups. College students seemed to benefit the most from a specific variety of 3 billion bacteria, bifidiobacterium bifidum, for 6 weeks reduced the number of students with cold and flu by 35%.

While we all have an interest in preventing the incidence and spread of colds and flu, the best prevention is biting the bullet and scheduling our annual flu vaccine. Daily and multiple, frequent hand washings as well as avoiding those who are ill as much as possible top the list as well for preventable measures.

If you’re looking for additional support that’s evidence-based, safe, and effective, Vitamin D and probiotics top my list for potential supplements. Despite the research suggesting that vitamin C containing foods (fruits and vegetables like citrus, pineapple, kiwi, strawberries, peppers, greens, potatoes) does not support preventing colds and flu, it can’t hurt to add these other-wise nutrient rich foods into your diet. While your nutrition may not prevent you from getting colds and flu, it can help less the severity of your symptoms and shorten the length of the illness. 

xo!

Stay well!

Becca

 

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