It’s cold and flu season again. And it’s not only the holidays that make it a very expensive season! Americans spend $3.5 billion yearly on doctor’s visits and nonprescription treatments for their one billion yearly colds, many caused by viruses such as the rhinovirus.
The rhinovirus charges even harder than its namesake African beast, and the flu virus is even worse — costing Americans about $10 billion yearly, while sending 240,000 folks to the hospital and killing another 36,000. And flu shots are no guarantee you won’t be a victim. In a recent two-year period, flu shots were only 44% effective in stopping the flu.
This article includes many simple, smart, and inexpensive ways you and your family can shorten the length and severity of a cold or flu (and better yet prevent them) by increasing the strength of your virus-fighting immune system. I also shed some light on whether or not patients with CFS and fibromyalgia should get a yearly flu shot.
This is the season to be happy, jolly, and merry — not miserable with a cold or flu!
An Ounce of Prevention …
For preventing cold and flu infections, simple common sense can be dramatically effective. The keys?
1. Take a good multivitamin.
Many nutrients, especially zinc and vitamin C, are very important for your body’s immune defense systems to work properly. Take a good multivitamin to ensure you’re getting a well-balanced set of nutrients. Especially important? If you have CFS/FMS, you probably have low zinc if you’re not on a good multivitamin. I recommend everyone with CFS/FMS take an extra 20 mg a day of zinc for 3 months to load the tank. Then the amount in a good multi should be fine. At $7 for a 100-day supply, this is one of the cheapest and most effective ways to improve immune function!
2. Remember your mother’s advice: Wash your hands!
We don’t "catch" most colds from inhaling the virus. Usually, the viruses were hanging out on a doorknob or other object, and they went from our fingers to our mouth or face. During cold season, wash your hands, which will wash off the viruses, when you get to work or get home. Do a thorough job. TIP: An effective hand-washing takes about as long as it takes to sing "Happy Birthday to You."
3. Get your 8 hours sleep a night.
Experiments show that depriving an animal of sleep suppresses its immune system. Don’t experiment on yourself! Your immune system is sleep-sensitive, too. Aim for 8 hours nightly. I suspect poor sleep in CFS/FMS is an important contributor to immune dysfunction. Can’t get a good night’s sleep? Here’s how you can!
What to Do if You Already Have the Infection
1. Don’t eat a lot of dairy.
Feel a cold coming on? Don’t overdo the dairy. Yes, foods like milk and cheese are filled with bone-building calcium. But their proteins can also make existing phlegm thicker and more irritating to the throat and sinus passages, which worsens uncomfortable upper respiratory symptoms like stuffiness and coughing, and sets the stage for a post-cold (and painful!) throat or sinus infection. It’s okay to have some dairy, but don’t overdo it during colds.
2. Skip the soda, too.
The nine teaspoons of sugar in the average 12 ounce can of soda suppresses immune function by 30% for up to three hours — just the opposite of what you want to do when you have a cold or flu!
3. Use a nasal rinse.
Coughing out mucus or blowing your nose is your body’s way of getting rid of billions of bacteria and viruses so your immune system doesn’t have to kill them in hand-to-hand combat. And one easy way to help your body get rid of those bugs is with a nasal rinse, which washes out more than 90% of the critters. You can rinse your nose with a netipot from your local health food store or drugstore, a product that will likely include the salts to make the rinse (e.g., the NasaFlow Netipot, from NeilMed). Or you can make the rinse at home, either sniffing it from the palm of your hand, or (lying down) squirting an eyedropper of the rinse into each nostril. After rinsing your nose, blow gently. (You don’t want to hurt your ears!) A recipe for the homemade rinse is to mix 1/2 teaspoon salt per cup of lukewarm water. You can add an optional pinch of baking soda to make it more soothing.
4. Drink a lot of water.
Drinking warm water (hot tea or hot water with a squirt of lemon for flavor) loosens the mucous, so it can be coughed out.
5. Inhale steam.
This is a great tip for colds that have turned into bronchitis. Just take a hot shower, and take a few deep breaths. This will loosen the mucous so you can cough it out.
6. Suck on zinc lozenges.
An analysis of several studies shows that using zinc lozenges during a cold can reduce its duration by 42% — in other words, the length of a typical cold is cut nearly in half! The keys to cold-shortening success when using zinc lozenges are the type and amount used. Use zinc acetate. And suck on lozenges that deliver at least 70 mg of zinc a day. For example, suck on four 20 mg lozenges per day. Can’t find lozenges with more than 10 mg? Suck on two at a time. GNC and the Vitamin Shoppe have tasty ones. (For more information, and the reference to the study, see Zinc Lozenges Can Cut Length of Colds by Half!)
7. Stock your medicine cabinet with ProBoost.
The thymus gland helps power your immune system, and natural thymic hormone — a remedy available in a supplement called ProBoost (made by Genicel, Inc.) — is a very effective immune stimulant. Dissolve the contents of one packet under your tongue, three times a day, until the infection clears up. Taken at the first sign of a cold or flu (or sinus infection, or acute bronchitis), it usually stops the infection within 12 to 36 hours. Because starting it early works best, and it is hard to find in your local health food store, this is one that I recommend be in everyone’s medicine cabinet.
8. And keep Oscillococcinum on hand, too.
Oscillococcinum is a homeopathic remedy (readily available at most health food stores, in some supermarkets, and online) that can help ease the symptoms of the flu (or the flu-like symptoms of a cold), such as chills, fever, achiness, and just plain old feeling bad (malaise). The remedy also speeds healing. For it to work, you need to take it early in the infection, as soon as you have any symptoms. Like ProBoost, this is also a good remedy to keep in your medicine cabinet — or to get at the first sign of the flu.
9. Don’t forget the vitamin C — 1,000 to 8,000 mg daily.
Vitamin C does help the common cold. Researchers analyzed 30 studies on vitamin C and colds, involving more than 11,000 people. They found that taking the vitamin shortened the duration of colds up to 13% in adults and up to 22% in children. For prevention, a multi with 500 mg of Vitamin C is optimal.
10. For "cough medicine," try dark chocolate!
You heard me right! A two-ounce square of dark chocolate can suppress coughs as effectively as cough medicines. (Dark chocolate contains at least 75% cacao.) Use the chocolate if you have a dry cough, which just irritates your lungs. A wet, productive cough that gets rid of mucous shouldn’t be suppressed.
Should You Get the Flu Vaccine if You Have Fibromyalgia?
It depends. People with CFS/FMS who have a history of having a bad reaction to the flu vaccine should not get it. People who have a history of being wiped out by the flu (or have other illnesses requiring a flu shot) should get it. For everybody else, the shot is optional.
Do I, personally, get a flu shot? No, I don’t. I prefer using the simple tips above. Is it reasonable for you to get a flu shot? Yes. But it’s simply an individual preference — and either way is OK. Be sure your zinc is optimized (see tip #1 above). If your zinc is low (which is common in CFS/FMS), the vaccine is not likely to work as well.
An important point is that I’ve never seen anybody develop CFS/FMS from getting the flu vaccine, though both the flu or the vaccine can cause a flare up.
My preference is that those with CFS/FMS skip the flu vaccine and use the immune-strengthening prevention tips at the beginning of this article!