Once again, it is cold and flu season. The most common-sense preventive measure is handwashing. The effectiveness of this simple step has been proven for almost 200 years, ever since pioneering British surgeon Dr. Joseph Lister demonstrated that washing your hands with an antiseptic dramatically cut down on surgical infections. Simple soap and water does the trick but I also like alcohol gels, as they work more rapidly and wipe out a larger percentage of viruses and bacteria.
Another preventive measure is daily gargling with salt water throughout the winter. People who gargle up to three times a day show a 40 percent decrease in respiratory illnesses and symptoms. Gargling also helps loosen up mucus and alleviate the pain and swelling that accompanies sore throats.
Vitamin D supplementation can help prevent colds and flus for all ages. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a daily dose of 400 IU year-round for children. Studies show that school-aged kids who took a higher dose of vitamin D during flu season had a 42 percent decrease in influenza infections. In Beijing, I also recommend vitamin D for adults because air pollution cuts down on the amount of sunlight that reaches our skin.
Getting a good night’s sleep can decrease the risk of infections. People who sleep only six to seven hours a night are three times more likely to get cold symptoms than those who get eight or more hours of sleep.
There is also good data on the effectiveness of herbal treatments to prevent colds (check out the Natural Medicines Database at tinyurl.com/bvalz5). American ginseng was listed as “possibly safe and effective,”the database’s highest rating. Garlic, alpha-lipoid acid (ALA), and lactobacillus had “insufficient evidence.” You might be surprised to find that common herbal treatments such as echinacea, vitamin C, and zinc are considered “possibly ineffective.”
And of course, there is the flu vaccine, which is recommended for everyone older than 6 months. It is not 100 percent effective, but the benefits far outweigh the risks. Those who have frequent contact with newborns and infants under 6 months should seriously consider getting the vaccine, as this demographic is most vulnerable to the flu but is not yet eligible for the vaccine.
Last but not least, don’t forget the basic building blocks for a healthy immune system: exercise, a good diet full of antioxidants, and not smoking.
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Dr. Richard Saint Cyr is a family doctor at Beijing United Family Hospital, and the director of clinical marketing and communications. He runs the blog www.myhealthbeijing.com.
Photo Courtesy of James Gathany (Wikimedia Commons)
This article originally appeared on p29 of the beijingkids December 2013 issue.
Check out the PDF version online at Issuu.com