By Hallie Levine Sklar
Every 32 seconds someone in the U.S. catches a cold. That means the highly contagious virus is literally everywhere -- from doorknobs to elevator buttons to the handle on your cart in the supermarket, where it can live for hours, says Neil Schachter, MD, medical director of the respiratory care department at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City and author of The Good Doctor's Guide to Colds & Flu. We know you've heard a million and one tips for avoiding these nasty germs -- the key is figuring out what works and what is a waste of time. Here, straight from the medical lab, healthy advice you can really trust.
Related: 6 Foods That Prevent Colds and the Flu
8 Ways to Beat a Cold
Gargle with water.
A recent Japanese study found that people who gargled with water three times a day had 36 percent fewer colds than those who didn't gargle at all and had fewer colds than those who used an antiseptic mouth rinse. "Gargling can help remove mucus that drains from your sinuses down to your throat, which is a spot where bad bugs love to hang out," explains Ann Kulze, MD, an internist in Charleston, South Carolina. "It also helps moisturize the cells that line the back of your throat; they tend to dry out in the winter, making them less effective in preventing viruses from entering your respiratory tract." Dr. Kulze's advice: Gargle with water before brushing your teeth in the morning, after you eat lunch, and at night.
Use your own pen.
At stores, restaurants, the gym, and the doctor's office, pull out your own ballpoint to sign credit slips and check-in sheets. "During the flu season, pens are passed to dozens of people each day, so they're a superb carrier of cold viruses," says Dr. Schachter. "When you handle them, you can transmit the virus to your fingers, and when you touch your face, eyes, or nose, it goes directly into your mucosal tissues."
A study conducted at the University of South Carolina found that people who were the most physically active daily, whether through sports, exercise, or chores such as shoveling snow, were 20 percent to 30 percent less likely to develop colds than couch potatoes were.
Drink hot tea.
A Harvard study shows that sipping tea may boost your body's defenses against infection. Researchers discovered that the blood cells in tea drinkers' immune systems responded five times more efficiently to germs than the blood cells of coffee drinkers. That's because tea contains a potent class of chemicals called catechins, which may spur your system to fight viruses, says Dr. Kulze. White tea is best: A Pace University study found that it was the most effective at fending off germs.
Related: More Ways Tea Keeps You Healthy
Get a flu shot.
Influenza weakens your immune system, making you more susceptible to colds. "Every year, I see women who didn't get the shot come down with the flu and then suffer cold after cold the rest of the season because their immune system is wiped out," says Steven Lamm, MD, clinical assistant professor of medicine at New York University in New York City. It's still not too late to get the vaccine -- doctors say supplies should be available until March.
It destroys the cilia -- little hairlike fibers inside the nose and lungs -- which help keep germs out, explains Dr. Lamm. Exposure to secondhand smoke may do the same, so if your partner smokes, encourage him to quit or insist that he light up outside.
Hand Washing 101
There is a trick to killing germs -- and 84 percent of us don't know it. To wash up correctly, wet your hands, lather the soap and then scrub, including between your fingers and under your nails for 15 seconds. Rinse using lukewarm -- not hot -- water; dry.
Cereal eaters are less likely to catch respiratory illnesses and colds than those who skip breakfast, according to studies done at Cardiff University in Wales. One possible explanation: Many breakfast foods are now fortified with micronutrients, which have been linked to a reduced risk of infection, explains study author Andy Smith, PhD, a psychologist.
5 Ways to Catch a Cold
Taking vitamin C.
Put away the pill bottle: A major Australian review of 23 studies on the subject found that vitamin C didn't reduce the risk of developing a cold, nor did it significantly lessen symptoms once people became ill.
Overdoing it at the gym.
Yes, exercise helps protect you against colds, but too much of a good thing can make you sick. Research at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, shows that while moderate activity, such as brisk walking for 45 minutes a day, helps boost your immune system, intense training, say, for a marathon, can suppress it. "During intense physical activity, your body produces certain hormones like cortisol and adrenaline that temporarily lower immunity," explains Joseph Brasco, MD, an internist and gastroenterologist in Huntsville, Alabama. How much is too much? It depends on your conditioning, but most people shouldn't do more than an hour a day, says Dr. Brasco.
This herb has long been touted as a cold fighter and immune-system enhancer, but a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine concluded it's no better than taking a placebo.
Drinking too much.
"It's a myth that alcohol kills cold germs -- it actually depresses your immune system," says Dr. Lamm. While an occasional glass of wine is fine, limit yourself to no more than one drink a day.
Convincing your doctor to give you antibiotics.
About 12 million unnecessary prescriptions for antibiotics to treat upper-respiratory-tract infections such as colds are written in this country every year; one report found this to be the second most common reason doctors prescribe antibiotics. But that's just bad medicine. "There's absolutely no benefit -- colds are viral, so taking an antibiotic is ineffective," says Dr. Schachter. You may only need antibiotics if complications such as bronchitis or sinusitis develop or if underlying health problems, such as diabetes or asthma, require them.
Related: 10 Reasons You're Healthier Than You Think
5 Ways to Get Rid of a Cold Fast
If you're already sick, these remedies will have you on the mend in no time.
In a study at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, people who used an over-the-counter (OTC) zinc nasal spray four times a day recovered almost two days faster and had fewer symptoms than those given a placebo. Another study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, found that volunteers treated with zinc lozenges had colds that lasted about half the time as those who didn't pop zinc -- four and a half days instead of eight. "We're not sure exactly how zinc works, but one theory is that it actually prevents the cold virus from replicating," says Dr. Schachter.
Eat chicken soup.
Mom was right: A Nebraska Medical Center study shows that the broth reduces inflammation and inhibits the activity of neutrophils, the white blood cells that may increase mucus production.
People who took 200 mg of ginseng twice daily during cold and flu season had shorter colds than those who just popped a placebo (11 days versus 16 1/2 days), according to a study performed at the University of Alberta, Canada. Look for products that contain at least 1.5 percent to 2 percent total ginsenosides, which means they contain enough ginseng to be effective.
Stay in bed.
"If your body is exhausted, it will be that much harder for it to fight the virus," says Benjamin Littenberg, MD, director of general internal medicine at the University of Vermont. If you must go to work, at least get a good night's rest: People who sleep four hours a night have weaker immune systems than those who get a seven and a half to eight and a half hours, according to a University of Chicago study.
Treat your symptoms.
To power through the day, look for a product that contains the nasal decongestant phenylephrine, such as Tylenol Cold Multi-Symptom or Sudafed PE. It's a stimulant, so it won't leave you feeling groggy, says Dr. Lamm. It can temporarily drive up blood pressure, though, so if you've got hypertension, talk to your doctor before using it. Choose a remedy that has an antihistamine such as diphenhydramine, as well as acetaminophen, like Tylenol PM. The antihistamine will make you drowsy, and the acetaminophen will relieve the fever and achiness that may keep you up. If coughing is disturbing your sleep, Dr. Littenberg recommends an OTC with dextromethorphan or the prescription drug Tessalan.
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By Hallie Levine Sklar