The most common sounds of the holiday season are not bells or “Ho-Ho-Hos!” or the sweetness of a child’s laughter. Each year, the most common sounds are sniffling, sneezing, and coughing from cold and flu season. As we travel more and bugs become more resistant to antibiotics, our rate of seasonal cold and flu continues to rise. An estimated one billion people catch a cold annually, and the common cold is the leading cause of missed work and school every year in the U.S. There are ways to protect yourself and your family from illness this year during cold and flu season using the acronym HAND: hygiene, awareness, nature, and data.

Before we discuss HAND, let’s talk about what colds and flu are and are not.

  • They are viruses.
  • They are not treatable with antibiotics.
  • They are highly contagious.
  • They are generally not life-threatening (unless you are in certain populations, such as the elderly, the very young, and those with another health issue).
  • They both have the same general symptoms: stuffy nose, coughing, sneezing, congestion, aches, and pains.
  • They are not the same as allergies. Allergies tend to last through the season. The mucous produced is also different, and there can be itchiness associated with allergies that is not present in colds or flu.

It is important to note that while colds and flu have very similar symptoms, the symptoms with flu are usually more severe and include aches, pains, and fever. If flu is diagnosed in the very early days, taking Tamiflu can shorten the duration of it, but after the first few days, this prescription medicine loses its effectiveness.

So how does HAND help prevent colds and flu or ease the symptoms of these viruses?

Hygiene

Nothing prevents more colds than proper hygiene. The average person touches their eyes, nose, and mouth 200 times a day. When you add that to the fact that only 77% of people wash their hands when leaving a public restroom, you have the perfect storm of viruses waiting to attack.

Some studies indicate that our hands have 1,500 germs per square inch. While some of these “germs” are normal and beneficial to our bodies, others are the kind that put us on our backs on the couch with chicken soup for a week. The Centers for Disease Control says that proper hand washing is the “single most important defense against disease.”

But it’s not enough to rinse your fingertips or do a perfunctory, five second scrub. Here is how to properly wash your hands:

  1. Use the hottest water you can. This can be very drying in the winter, so feel free to use hand lotion liberally afterwards.
  2. Use a healthy pump of soap, and scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds, or about the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday.” Scrubs the backs of your hands, the thumb, between the fingers, and the fingernails.
  3. Rinse thoroughly.

You’re done, right? Turn off the faucet and walk away? Wrong. Don’t touch that germy faucet, and don’t touch the germy door. Use your forearm to turn off the faucet, and open the bathroom door with a paper towel or part of your shirt.

Awareness

Cold and flu peak at certain times of the year, usually as the weather gets colder and we begin our holiday travel or right when school comes back into session in the fall. If you come in contact with people who have cold or flu, it is okay to stay a bit farther away. Shaking hands during cold and flu season is another way to transmit viruses, and many people at the CDC have adopted a fist bump or forearm bump as a greeting. This is perfectly okay.

Awareness extends to how you treat your kids with colds, too. If your child is sick with flu or has a fever, do not send them to school. Chances are good they won’t make it through the day, and chances are also good that if you do send them you will be spreading the illness to others.

Nature

While there are no prescription medicines that shorten the duration of colds and flu, there are some natural treatments for colds and flu that can be used to lessen the symptoms. Some teas that can help with cold and flu symptoms include:

  • Slippery elm: Eases cough and soothes sore throat
  • Peppermint, eucalyptus: Opens chest and sinus congestion
  • Ginger: Opens congestion and also fights nausea
  • Lemon and honey: Boosts the immune system and soothes the throat

There are many other herbal tea combinations that can help with symptoms.

In addition to teas, there are vitamins and supplements that have been recommended for easing symptoms during cold and flu season. Vitamin C, vitamin D, and zinc are three of the most common. Other supplements include garlic, elderberry, and ginseng, to name a few.

Data

How do you fight colds and flu with data? Well, it is important to know what works and what doesn’t, and evidence is important. For example, several years ago Echinacea was touted as the number one way to prevent colds and flu or to shorten their duration. Millions were spent on teas, pills, and tinctures, but a recent analysis of research has shown that results of studies were mixed, and although Echinacea can’t hurt, it didn’t necessarily help. Bruce Barrett, M.D., Ph.D. in the department of family medicine at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and his team reviewed 24 research studies to see whether Echinacea should be deemed safe and effective for the prevention and treatment of colds.

Study methodologies varied widely, as did the type of Echinacea used in each, but each study featured a control group and was therefore deemed a valid study to examine. Barrett and his team found that some forms of Echinacea possibly reduced the chance of catching a cold by 10-20%, but it depended mostly on the preparation of the plant. Bottom line for Barrett?

“…it looks like taking Echinacea may reduce the incidence of colds. For those who take it as a treatment, some of the trials report real effects — but many do not…Echinacea may have small preventive or treatment effects, but the evidence is mixed.”

People in the U.S. spend nearly two billion dollars on supplements and vitamins to ward of cold and flu symptoms or to prevent them altogether, so it’s important to have data as to their effectiveness.

Keep HAND in mind as we head into another cold and flu season. What are your strategies for this cold and flu season?

Image by Ryan Hyde via Flickr

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