Arguably the most frequently occurring illness in the world, a cold is an inflammation of the upper respiratory tract initiated by a viral infection. While more than 200 different viruses can be the culprits, two are responsible in 25 to 60 percent of instances:
- Rhinoviruses, which occur mainly in spring and autumn, and
- Coronaviruses, which appear mostly in winter.
Considering the ubiquity of the common cold, it’s surprising that it’s still not fully clear how the virus spreads. However, growing evidence indicates that in adults, it passes from one person to another through inhalation into the nose and air passageways. Less commonly, viruses can be transferred after direct contact with nasal discharge: this is most likely to occur in daycare or kinder settings.
Cold, wet or windy weather is often blamed for spreading cold infections. However the weather in itself does not create an increased risk of catching a cold. Instead, researchers believe the risk comes because such weather keeps people indoors, exposing more people to the virus, still, it’s important to stay as warm as possible during cold weather so your body temperature remains high enough to fight off any stray invaders.
The more severe the cold, the more likely transfer will occur. Smothering sneezes and coughs with a large handkerchief or tissue, and washing your hands and face frequently with hot soapy water remain the most effective methods of containing the spread.
When you’re away from home, ATMS life member, Sandi Rogers ED.D., recommends carrying a pack of specially prepared moist hand wipes. Pour one teaspoon of pure eucalyptus oil into a small flat pack of wipes, or two tablespoons into a large pull-out pack, replace the lid, and roll the container backwards and forwards so the contents can absorb the eucalyptus oil.
The oil’s powerful anti-viral properties make it an effective protector against colds – and other conditions, as it has equally strong anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. So wipe your face and hands regularly with these wipes. Additionally, breathe in the aromatics of the eucalyptus oil by placing a hand wipe over your nose. This is especially important when you’re seated next to someone in public transport or on a plane who is coughing and sneezing, because it will halt the virus in its tracks.
The best cold remedy: a strong immune system
In order to get rid of a cold, the immune system must produce sufficient antibodies to destroy the virus, a process that takes three to four days. Antibiotics are powerless to fight colds, as they have no effect on viruses: their target is bacteria.
Obviously the best cold remedy is to avoid getting one in the first place, and this means nurturing your immune system to ensure it is sufficiently robust to fight off an attack. However, Sandi stresses that protecting your immune system is a year-round activity: typically people focus on it only in the lead-up to winter, and then relax once spring takes hold, but this isn’t enough.
Diet is critical, not least because the immune system starts in the gut. “When you eat a poor-quality diet, the body struggles; the gut flora changes, thereby compromising the immune system,” Sandi explains.
Here’s your immune-enhancing action plan:
- Eat loads of brightly coloured vegetables and fruits.
- Include beans, peas and lentils, and small amounts of whole grains.
- Add protein, ideally in the form of oily fish such as salmon and sardines.
- Eat plain, unsweetened, live yoghurt regularly to boost beneficial gut bacteria.
- Include spices and herbs because most have immune-enhancing properties. Garlic, ginger, parsley, mint, coriander, black pepper, chillies and turmeric are all excellent.
- Minimise intake of sugar and white-flour products, and indeed all processed foods.
- Ensure your vitamin D levels are adequate, as low vitamin D has been associated with increased viral infections. Even if you get plenty of sunshine supplements may be necessary as the body’s ability to manufacture vitamin D declines from age 30. So have your GP check levels.
- Drink lots of green tea as one to five cups a day are associated with lower rates or viral infections, even in children.
- Get adequate sleep.
- Manage stress.
- Exercise regularly.
The American College of Sports Physicians says regular and moderate exercise lessens the risk of respiratory infections, taking the view that 30 minutes moderate exercise all or most days of the week places less pressure on the immune system than intense or prolonged routines.
As for exercising when you have a cold, the College says mild-to-moderate exercise does not appear to be harmful – and may even be beneficial – when symptoms are only from the neck up. If the illness is systemic, bed rest followed by a gradual return to normal workouts is advised. Obviously, see a doctor for more serious symptoms, including:
- Pain around the eyes, especially in the presence of a green nasal discharge.
- Ear pain.
- Persistent, uncontrollable cough.
- Coughing up green or yellow mucous.
- Shortness of breath.
- Fever above 38.9 degrees C.
Some people swear that certain nutrients – notably zinc and vitamin C – effectively head off colds, and the writer is one of these. However, research on these nutrients has produced mixed results. In the case of zinc, this is largely because many of the studies are flawed – and this applies to those that find it beneficial as well as those that say it’s not. In studies where the results have been positive, it appears zinc is most effective when taken within 24 hours of the symptoms manifesting.
Vitamin C’s virus-destroying ability is similarly unclear, with a number of studies showing it produces no effect on the common cold, and others showing regular supplementation has a modest but consistent effect in reducing the duration of common cold symptoms. Other trials where high doses of vitamin C started after the onset of symptoms produced no consistent effect on the duration or severity of common cold symptoms.
However, one large adult trial reported benefit from an eight-gram dose a the onset of symptoms.
Echinacea, the great herbal hope of the 90s, has also come under fire as being ineffective, but it appears the secret may be in the type and form used – and the timing. ATMS member, Teresa Mitchell-Paterson, says the combination of pure Echinacea angustifolia liquid extract taken with one tablespoon of ginger juice at the very first sign of a tickle in the throat can head off an infection.
“However, it must be Echinacea angustifolia, NOT Echinacea purpurea, and it must be a fluid extract to ensure the infected mucosa are touched,” Teresa stresses. “Similarly, the ginger must be fluid, either juice or herbal extract.”
Echinacea angustifolia and ginger both inhibit the acute virus binding to the receptor cells. At the same time, Echinacea angusifolia strengthens and protects the mucous membranes, making it harder for the virus to enter the cells. “This is the reason the combination must be at the very first hint of a symptom,” explains Teresa. “If the virus has already bound, there’s no point using it – and taking it at this stage can actually make the respiratory mucosa produce additional fluid.”
The ginger thins the mucous and helps drain the fluid from the lungs. By repairing damaged tissue, it allows the body to adapt to the immune response.
Ginger is one of several essential oils that can help halt a cold in its tracks if used at the first hint that a cold may be trying to take hold. Other antivirals essential oils include oregano, lemon, cinnamon, marjoram, black pepper, peppermint, thyme, fennel, basil, clove, rosemary, lavender and frankincense. Add a few drops of oil to a bath, use in a diffuser, steam inhale it, or mix with a carrier oil and massage into the chest.
Olive leaf extract
Research suggests that certain bioactive phytochemicals in olive leaf extract have the ability to halt the spread of cold and flu viruses by blocking the process by which viruses reproduce. Breaking this chain ensures the virus population is not so large that it overwhelms the immune system. Research also shows that olive leaf extract is especially effective against viral infections when fever is present.
People who lead highly stressful lives, or who are particularly susceptible to colds and flu, may find they benefit from long-term use of olive leaf extract rather than taking it only when symptoms appear. Look for a high-quality extract standardised to a minimum 20 percent oleuropein.
So the consistent theme that emerges with these cold remedies is to start using them with the first sniffle or tickle in the back of the throat. Don’t wait to see if it’s a false alarm – for even it is, these nutrients won’t cause any harm.
Written for the Australian Traditional Medicine Society (www.ATMS.com.au) by Rosemary Ann Ogilvie