Most likely you and your family have already been through a couple rounds of the common colds and flu. There are a lot of home remedies and folklore about preventing the common cold, but let’s review the best, evidence-based preventive tips.
Have you tried gargling daily with salt water? In a 2005 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, people who gargled up to three times a day had a 40 percent decrease in respiratory illness and symptoms during the winter. Gargling is also a simple way to help improve sore throat pain and swelling, and loosens up mucus.
Another preventative method is taking a daily supplement of vitamin D. Daily year-round doses of vitamin D (400 IU for children) are already recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. A recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that school kids who took a higher dose of vitamin D during flu season had a 42 percent decrease in influenza infections. I recommend 1,000 IU daily for adults.
Don’t forget the simple things. Getting a good night’s sleep can decrease your risk of infections. In a fascinating experiment published in 2009 in The Archives of Internal Medicine, researchers injected the common cold rhinovirus into people’s nostrils and measured who got infected, then compared this to their sleeping habits. Those who slept only six to seven hours a night were three times more likely to get cold symptoms than those who had eight or more hours of sleep.
Another commonsense preventive measure is hand washing. Last year’s H1N1 scare raised awareness across China, and it’s much more common now to see alcohol gel hand-wash dispensers in schools, malls and restaurants. This really does help cut down on passing on infections. People shouldn’t waste their money on anti-microbial soaps as there’s little evidence of their effectiveness, and they will likely lead to a worsening the serious problem of antibiotic resistance. Simple soap and water also does the trick, but I prefer alcohol gels as they work faster and wipe out a larger percentage of viruses and bacteria.
What about the commonly used vitamin C, echinacea, and zinc? The best evidence so far is still fairly conflicting, and the online Natural Medicines Database lists all three as "likely safe" but "possibly ineffective".
Another major key to prevent the winter flu (but not the common cold) is the annual flu vaccine. As previously mentioned in this column, the vaccine can lower your chances of infection, as well as prevent you from infecting family members and colleagues. It’s not 100 percent effective, but I feel the benefits far outweigh the risks. Those of you in contact with infants under 6 months of age should seriously consider getting the vaccine for yourselves as infants are most vulnerable to the flu, and are not eligible for the vaccine. It’s not too late to get the flu vaccine, as flu season can run into late spring. All expat clinics have the vaccine in stock, which is usually available at a small charge of around RMB 120.