By Judy O’Gorman Alvarez
It starts with a scratchy throat, maybe an achy feeling that comes when you haven’t done anything overly strenuous and then the stuffy nose.
No matter how much you want to ignore the symptoms, you know you’ve got it – the common cold.
“We’re already seeing an influx of winter colds and positive influenzas in the emergency department,” says Dr. Stephanie Reynolds, emergency physician at Riverview Medical Center.
As Reynolds points out, there is little to be done to cure or even shorten the duration of a winter cold, but there are remedies to alleviate some of the symptoms.
“If you have the workings of a chest cold and coughing, we can help open up your airways with breathing treatments,” she says of the treatment doctors can provide. “But for the run-of-the-mill common cold, we recommend you treat the symptoms with over-the-counter medications.
“A cold is cold and it has to run its course,” she says. That usually means two weeks of discomfort.
Reynolds cautions cold sufferers to stay away from other people so as not to spread the infection, especially those whose immune systems may be compromised, such as the elderly, small children and pregnant women.
“You want to make sure you don’t share anything” with them, she says.
The cold-afflicted should “drink plenty of fluids and put your head under a rock for two weeks,” Reynolds says.
But are there alternative cures or treatments?
“There are a lot of things out there,” says Reynolds. “It’s a matter of what works for you.”
Even the old adage of feed a cold and starve a fever versus starve a cold and feed a fever is open to interpretation. Whatever makes the patient feel better is the favored advice.
What is agreed is to get plenty of fluids – hot soup, orange juice and the like. Reynolds suggests avoiding caffeine but, “fluids are important, no matter how you get them.”
“Grandma’s chicken soup, is comfort food for the soul,” Reynolds says. “In some ways it changes your outlook and you feel good after you have a nice bowl of hot chicken soup, especially if someone – mom or grandma, someone who cares about you – made it. It gears you up to combat what’s affecting you.”
According to Reynolds, there’s good science behind the chicken soup idea.
“It makes you feel better as this was given by someone who cares about you. It elevates your spirits, moves you along toward feeling better.”
Alternative preventive ideas for colds include natural health supplements such as echinacea. “There has been much talk – good and bad – about the effects of echinacea,” Reynolds says. She suggests people “tread lightly if you have a severe pollen allergy” as it could make symptoms worse.
Reynolds says she knows people who swear by products such as zinc lozenges and Airborne, a dietary supplement containing herbal extracts, synthetic vitamins and other ingredients to support the immune system, who seem to have had success warding off colds during the winter.
She gives credence to people who “show up day after day at work” and seem to escape the typical winter cold. “Whatever they’re doing – as long as it doesn’t hurt – that’s great.”
In the meantime, what she does heartily suggest is getting a flu shot. “And wash your hands,” she says. “Those are words to live by and suffer through the season.”
Suzanne Seniscalchi, clinical dietician with Food and Nutrition Service at Riverview Medical Center, agrees that getting plenty of fluids is essential when suffering from a cold. “Liquids in any form – tea, water, juices, soup, or any kind of liquid you can take – will replenish any fluids that you’re losing from sneezing or a runny nose.
“There is no one special food to get over a common cold,” Seniscalchi says, “but you want to work to improve your immune function.” To do that, you should “have a diet that contains a wide variety of vitamins, low-fat dairy products, lean proteins. All that can help build your immune system.”
She, too, doesn’t dismiss the benefits of mom’s chicken soup, because she says fluids are essential, the warm temperature warms the body, and added vegetables and proteins are always good.
“It has every thing you need in a cup,” she says.
Vitamin, mineral or herbal supplements may be popular, but Seniscalchi is not convinced. “There doesn’t seem to be any real conclusive research to see if it could help,” she says.
“Zinc plays a role in immune function,” she says, but rather than a supplement, “it’s better to get zinc from oysters and meats.
“If you use any supplement, always talk to your doctor first,” she cautions, “because some supplements can interact with your other medications.”
More importantly, people should take in plenty of nutrient-rich foods to get their vitamins. Instead of a vitamin C tablet, Seniscalchi suggests sufferers eat more tangerines, grapefruits and other fruits.
There has been research, she says, that says vitamin C can possibly help shorten the length of a cold. “By a day,” she says.