Cold Comfort

Here are practical tips for preventing and treating the misery of colds and the flu, plus old and new thinking about these seasonal afflictions.

January 23, 2000|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

Your throat is scratchy, your nose is stuffy and you have a little fever. Should you: a) Take two aspirin and call the doctor in the morning? b) Blame the flu shot you got two days ago?

c) Stock up on echinacea and zinc lozenges?

The answers are: a) no, b) no and c) maybe. Or maybe not.

That's the problem with colds and flu. Americans suffer through more than 1 billion of them annually, according to an estimate by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

But most of us don't really know how to prevent them and, once we have them, how to treat them effectively. The information out there is confusing and often contradictory.

No, that's not the problem with colds and flu. The real problem is just how miserable such minor illnesses can make you. (Minor if you're an otherwise healthy adult.)

Last time we checked, they didn't have a cure for the common cold; but the news is more promising as far as the flu is concerned. New drugs shorten its duration and lessen symptoms. And a flu shot will keep you from getting the flu more than 70 percent of the time. This year's is particularly effective.

"It's your first line of prevention," says Dr. Trish Perl, hospital epidemiologist for Johns Hopkins. "All the strains of flu CDC has tested this season are included in it."

Even though flu shots take two weeks to become active, it's not too late to get one. The flu season, which struck hard about a month earlier than usual, will probably last to the end of March. And no, you can't catch the flu or a cold from a flu shot; it's not a live vaccine.

Flu shots won't keep you from getting colds; they're caused by different viruses. If you want to prevent both colds and flu, your best bet is:

Hand-washing 101

Think Lady Macbeth. Think Howard Hughes. Washing your hands incessantly and thoroughly is probably the most effective way to avoid catching a cold. What happens is that you transmit the disease to yourself by touching a contaminated surface -- a telephone, a doorknob, a keyboard where germs can lurk for hours if not days. Then you touch your nose or eyes before washing your hands. The damage is done.

"It's by far the most effective thing you can do," says Charles Inlander, author of "77 Ways to Beat Colds and Flu" (Walker and Company, 1996). "It's a thousand times more effective than not kissing someone who has the bug."

When we say wash your hands, we're not talking about waving your hands under the hot water. Lather up, preferably not with a bar of soap. Germs can lurk there from the cold sufferer who used the bar before you. Keep washing long enough to sing the first verse of the "Star Spangled Banner." (Silently. You don't want people thinking you're really weird.)

Don't share hand towels with the others in your household. Even if no one seems to have a cold, sufferers can be contagious several days before symptoms appear. According to one estimate, 25 percent of colds are asymptomatic -- the carrier may feel a little under the weather but never really gets sick. He can, however, infect people around him.

And keep your hands away from your nose and eyes.

Other ways to lessen your chances of catching a cold or the flu aren't as interesting as, say, taking massive doses of obscure herbal remedies. In fact, they're downright boring. But they probably work better. So here goes.

An ounce of prevention

* Get eight hours of sleep or more a night.

* Eat a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. Studies suggest that some of them, such as leafy greens and berries, may boost your immune system, so don't limit yourself to the traditional cold fighters like oranges and grapefruit.

* Drink more nonalcoholic and noncaffeinated liquids than usual -- even more than the recommended eight 8-ounce glasses a day.

* Stay out of crowds.

* Avoid handshaking.

* Humidify your house. Heat can dry out mucous membranes and make you more susceptible to respiratory illnesses.

* Use paper cups in the bathroom.

* Immediately put used glasses or utensils in the sink or dishwasher so no one is tempted to reuse them.

* Stay out of places like airplanes that recirculate air and airborne viruses. If you must fly, keep drinking lots of liquids -- the recirculated air is dry.

* Stay away from young children. (Easier said than done if you're a parent.) If they don't seem to have a cold, they're probably coming down with one this time of year -- children have about twice as many as adults on average. Go wash your hands again.

Let's say you've done everything you can to prevent infection and more: avoiding people, wiping down every surface in the house with disinfectant. And you still get a scratchy throat and a stuffy nose.

What next?

First, you need to figure out whether you have a cold or the flu. The flu can be treated within the first 48 hours with one of the new prescription drugs on the market. You've probably caught the flu if:

* You have a high fever (102 degrees or more).

* Your head aches badly.

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