Doc Talk: You don’t catch a cold – a cold catches you

12/23/2012 10:30 AM

08/08/2014 10:13 AM

During the holiday season, no one can afford to get sick. That doesn’t really seem to matter; everyone seems to be catching colds anyway. This leads to a lot of interest in how not to get sick, why some people get sick while others don’t, and figuring out which of these groups you fall in.

The viruses that cause the common cold don’t discriminate about whom they attack. Males and females of all ages can catch a cold. And, while there is an increase in colds during the winter months, the weather is not really the culprit. People get sick in the Southern U.S. just like they do in the Northern states. During a college football game in December, spectators in the stands are no more likely to get sick than those who watch from their cozy, warm couch.

To avoid catching a cold, many remedies have been suggested and tried, including vitamins C, D and E; zinc; herbal remedies such as echinacea, garlic and ginseng; exercise; and even wearing face masks in public to avoid catching anything. There are products (such as Airborne) that combine all of these vitamins and herbs. However in clinical studies, only vitamin C supplementation and exercise show any potential for decreasing your risk of catching a cold, and even those results are mixed. Also, keep in mind that the topic here is preventing a cold, not treating one. Once you start having symptoms, it’s too late to start drinking your orange juice hoping to kick your cold faster.

In a perfect world, everyone would stay home when they are sick, and we wouldn’t have to worry about catching anything at work or school. Unfortunately, we are contagious before we even know we’re sick and can continue to spread the virus for up to two weeks. So staying home just isn’t practical.

So what can you do to limit your exposure to cold viruses? To answer that, you have to think about how these viruses are transmitted. The primary way is by contaminated hands (hands that were coughed or sneezed on) touching the nose, mouth and eyes. While there is some transmission through inanimate objects, such as children’s toys, and through the air, these routes are not as efficient for the virus. So as you might guess, frequent hand washing or use of hand sanitizer is your best bet. Wiping your household surfaces with standard household cleaners can help some, too. But remember, these are viruses, not bacteria, so using antibacterial cleaning products does not do anything extra beyond standard cleaners.

In short, to avoid illnesses, wash your hands frequently, exercise and consider taking vitamin C. Be consistent with these and start now, because if you wait until your co-workers get sick, it could already be too late for you.

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