Beat the colds, flus, and blues!
Dr. Eric Viegas ND
Feeling under the weather? Tired, congested, and not feeling like your usual self? Chances are good that your immune system is lacking its true capabilities this winter, and you might be getting a cold!
The Nasopharynx–the area where the nose, mouth, and throat meet–is where most colds start because common bugs can travel in through your eyes, mouth, and nose.
How do they do this?
Well, pathogens that cause the cold transmit through people’s various secretions, ending up on shared surfaces like desks, the water cooler where people congregate to catch up on each other’s lives, and eventually onto your unwashed hands. When you rub your eyes, and nose, the pathogens can travel into your body and take up residence in your nasopharynx. The most common culprits in the development of colds are rhinoviruses. As their name would suggest, rhinoviruses thrive in the conditions and temperature range of your nose. Typical symptoms of a common cold include coughing, runny nose, sneezing, sore throat, fever, and a headache. Many people know that the common cold can affect your nose, but it can also lead to issues in your throat, sinuses, and even rob you of your voice.
Sinusitis, another common winter malady, can develop from a history of allergies, colds, anatomical malformations like a deviated nasal septum (the barrier of cartilage that sits between your nostrils), and lifestyle factors like smoking. Typically, people who suffer from sinusitis have pain and swelling over the affected sinuses which can cause a painful headache. Sinusitis is worse in the morning, since mucus in the sinuses finds its way into your throat through post-nasal drip while you sleep. Smokers have an increased risk of sinusitis because smoke can increase thick mucus production and impair your body’s ability to clear it. Even second hand smoke can cause an increased risk of upper and lower respiratory tract infections.
Ear infections usually affect children with a cold or flu. Symptoms include ear pain, ear discharge, and fever. Bugs can travel through the eustachian tube–a passageway that links the nasopharynx to the ear in order to equalize pressure on either side of the eardrum. Certain strains of H. influenzae, a bug that waits until the immune system cannot hold them off, can cause ear & eye infections, sinusitis, and pneumonia in children.
Last, but not least, influenza! The flu usually manifests with symptoms of fever, eye infection, runny nose, headache, sore throat, muscle pain, fatigue, coughing, and nausea/vomiting. H. influenzae is not the main culprit here, despite the misleading name. Influenza viruses A, B, and C all contribute what we know as ‘the flu’ in both humans and animals. Type A causes all known flu pandemics, the most well known being the Spanish Flu of 1918. Type B only affects humans, but has less potential to mutate than Type A. Type C usually affects children but is less common than Types A and B. Unfortunately for our immune systems, influenza viruses mutate at a rapid rate. What this means is it is very difficult for the Center for Disease Control to predict which strains will appear each year, rendering the vaccine from the previous year ineffective. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the flu vaccine for this year will match the strain that becomes most prevalent. To add to the problem, it’s usually very difficult to tell the difference between an influenza illness and an influenza-like illness.
Could it be allergies?
Is the mucus from your runny nose watery/clear in color? Usually colds and flus result in yellow/green coloured nasal discharge while an allergic response to airborne allergens results in clear/watery nasal discharge. People who suffer from allergies also tend to have itchy, watery eyes and an itchy skin rash that goes away when no longer exposed to the allergen.
What are some situations whereby I should immediately seek the emergency department?
If you have a sudden onset of a very painful sore throat, but strangely no or very little coughing, a fever greater than 38C, tonsillar pus, and swollen lymph nodes in your neck chances are good that you might be suffering from Strep throat. Strep throat is caused by a nasty bug called group A beta-hemolytic streptococcus (GAS). Streptococcal infections can be invasive and spread to your blood and organs if left unchecked. GAS is estimated to cause half a million deaths worldwide per year, and the most at risk for developing a GAS infection are those with compromised immune function (children, the elderly, pregnant women, etc). Currently there is no vaccine for Streptococcus, but good hand hygiene goes a long way!
Another emergent situation I want to discuss is called Epiglottitis. The epiglottis is like a valve that controls the passage between air into your trachea (aka your ‘windpipe’) and food or drink into your esophagus. It stays open while you breathe normally, and closes off the trachea when swallowing foods and drinks. Interestingly, your epiglottis has tastebuds! Epiglottitis, a severe swelling of the epiglottis, is commonly caused by H. influenzae in young children 2-5 years old. Typical symptoms include uncontrollable drooling, inability to swallow, inability to lie down or talk, and restlessness. Epiglottitis is life threatening, and can lead to death from an obstructed airway, so if you suspect epiglottitis in a young child take them to the emergency department immediately.
What can I do to cut my risk of getting a cold or flu?
Wash your hands with soap and water before touching your face. Hand sanitizers are okay to use if you don’t have immediate access to soap and water, but make sure the products you are using contain at least 60%-95% ethanol, since this formulation is most effective in killing those bugs! Unfortunately some commercial grade hand sanitizers, despite bold claims of killing a high percentage of germs, only contain 40%-60% ethanol. As a result, these products simply act to spread bugs around instead of killing them. As a general rule of thumb, the combination of hand sanitizers and regular handwashing is better than using hand sanitizers alone.
In 2011, Stebbins et al. conducted a randomized controlled trial of 3360 school children to determine if hand sanitizer use could combat transmission of influenza infections. The study used the slogan “WHACK the Flu!”:
- Wash and sanitize your hands
- Home when you are sick
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth
- Cover your coughs and sneezes
- Keep your distance from sick people
Researchers found a 52% reduction in influenza A virus infections in children who received this program versus those who did not, and a 26% reduction in flu related absenteeism. Using this simple acronym is a powerful tool in your fight against colds and the flus!
What else can I do?
Great question! An easy way to strengthen your defenses is to find a fun form of exercise. Exercise can improve your mood, energy, and resilience to stressors; keeping your immune function strong. Getting a good night’s rest also helps your body’s immune system to recharge.
Are there any supplements, herbs, or foods that can also help my body fight off a cold?
Always consult your doctor before beginning any new supplement or medication to find out if it is a safe option. That being said, there are a few good remedies sitting in your pantry!
- Peppermint contains the essential oil menthol. Menthol is an excellent anti-spasmodic–meaning it relaxes spasming tissues–and can relax the airways to relieve nasal and sinus congestion. Furthermore, peppermint can ease nausea, gas, and bloating by relaxing the digestive system. It’s important to cover your peppermint tea while it steeps since the essential oils can evaporate!
- Ginger is an excellent herb for nausea, and it can strengthen your digestion to combat a loss of appetite and vomiting. Additionally, ginger tea can be used as a gargle for sore throats.
- Yes, it’s time for some thyme! The active constituent in thyme, similar to peppermint, is an essential oil called thymol. Thymol can fight colds by relaxing a spasmodic cough and the airways to clear mucus. Thyme also contains carvacrol, an anti-microbial oil that is excellent at killing bugs. Try adding more thyme to soups and stews, as well as on meat.
So, you’ve come this far, and your cold or flu is on its way out but you still don’t feel like yourself. You might be suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD has a host of depressive symptoms that tend to occur at the same time every year, usually during the winter. People with SAD tend to have difficulty waking in the morning, overeating, oversleeping, nausea, withdrawal from friends and family, difficulty concentrating, and decreased sex drive. If you can’t afford to go on vacation and soak up some sun to combat SAD, try gratitude.
What’s so great about gratitude?
Gratitude towards others increases activity in the brain’s “social dopamine circuits”, making social interactions more enjoyable. Focusing on positive aspects of your life also boosts the feel good neurotransmitter serotonin. If sitting down and making a list of the things you are grateful for seems like too difficult of a task, don’t sweat it! It’s actually the activity of searching for what you’re grateful for that counts. Searching increases emotional intelligence, which in turn makes your brain more efficient at this activity. With higher emotional intelligence, gratefulness takes less and less energy over time. Still having trouble? Don’t dismay! Just label how you’re feeling: Sad? Angry? Anxious? Consciously labeling and validating how you feel reduces the impact your mood has on your daily life. Believe it or not, your brain can recognize the difference between suppressing, or labeling your emotions. To put it a different way, the only bad emotion is the one you don’t express.
Remember, there is a lot you can do to take control of your health and fight back against the colds, flus, and blues! Have a safe and happy winter.
- Stebbins S, Cummings D, Stark J, Vukotich C, Mitruka K, Thompson W, et al. Reduction in the incidence of influenza a but not influenza b associated with use of hand sanitizer and cough hygiene in schools: a randomized controlled trial. Pediatr Infect Dis J. 2011 Nov; 30(11): 921-926.