Doctors call them “viral upper respiratory infections” or “acute viral nasopharyngitis” because big words always sound impressive to patients. But the common cold is…well, common. Most of us get two or three a year. Colds are caused by upward of 200 viruses and it’s this large number that not only prevents developing a “cold vaccine” but is also responsible for the woeful complaint, “Another cold? This isn’t fair! I just got over one.” Neither conventional nor alternative medicine can cure a cold yet, but our WholeHealth Chicago remedies will get you feeling better muy pronto and may just might knock a few days off the usual seven to 10 days you can expect a cold to last. And you might even build up some more resistance to fend off the next cold virus that comes your way.
What are Colds?
Colds are minor but very contagious viral respiratory infections that cause inflammation in the mucous linings of the nose and throat. The familiar symptoms of the common cold–nasal congestion, sneezing, coughing, runny nose, watery eyes, and a sore throat–usually develop a day or two after exposure to a cold virus. The infection remains contagious for two to three days after the onset of symptoms, and normally lasts about a week to 10 days. Except in people with chronic respiratory disorders, colds rarely lead to serious complications. Colds are more common in winter than in summer. Small children are more susceptible to colds than adults, who develop immunity to many cold viruses with age. Smokers and people who spend a lot of time with children also tend to catch more colds than the rest of the population. There is still no cure for the common cold, but simple self-care measures can relieve symptoms, speed recovery, and prevent transmission of cold viruses to others.
Congestion in the nose, sinuses, and chest
Nasal discharge and watery eyes
Sneezing and coughing
Sore or scratchy throat
General muscle aches and pains
Fatigue and malaise
Possible recurrence of cold sores (due to the reactivation by the cold virus of a dormant herpes simplex type infection)
Occasional low-grade fever (more common in children than adults)
What Causes Colds?
A cold can be caused by more than 200 different strains of viruses, the most common of which are the rhinoviruses and the coronaviruses. A cold virus attaches itself to the mucous lining of the nose or throat, then spreads throughout the upper respiratory tract and sometimes to the lungs as well. Cold symptoms are not caused by the virus itself, but rather by your body’s “factory installed” systems to shed itself of the virus.
Colds are easily spread by direct contact (shaking a cold sufferer’s hands, then touching your nose or eyes), by indirect contact (touching a phone, cup, or toy used by a cold sufferer), or through the air (from the sneezing or coughing of someone with a cold). Although colds are more common in winter, exposure to cold, wet weather does not cause them. However, by drying out nasal passages and making them more hospitable to cold viruses, indoor heating is thought to be a factor in the proliferation of winter colds.
Treatment and Prevention
There is nothing that can be done to cure a cold. With or without treatment, the vast majority of colds are over in about a week, or at the worst, two. But the tried-and-true remedies–over-the-counter pain relievers such as aspirin and acetaminophen for aches and fever; gargling with warm, salty water for sore throat relief; rest and hot fluids–can make the discomfort of a cold more bearable.
Supplements also help, but more by fighting the cold virus and stimulating your immune system’s than by suppressing symptoms. Although they won’t necessarily make you feel better right away, supplements may help you recover faster as well as reduce some of your symptoms. Contrary to popular belief, vitamin C does not prevent colds, even in large doses, but it will improve your immune system response to cold viruses and thereby lessen the severity and duration of cold symptoms.
The key to prevention is to limit your exposure to the cold virus by washing your hands often and steering clear of people with colds and objects that they’ve touched.
Just a reminder: If you have a serious medical condition, it’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor before beginning a program of supplements.
How Supplements Can Help
Taken in high doses (50,000 IU twice a day) at the first signs of a cold, vitamin A is a powerful virus fighter. But do not continue taking such high doses for more than five days. And if you’re pregnant or considering becoming pregnant never exceed 5,000 IU of vitamin A per day.
Although it may not prevent a cold, vitamin C can help shorten its duration and reduce bothersome symptoms.
Consider taking the herb echinacea as well. This immune system booster is a natural antiviral cold fighter. For an extra boost, combine echinacea with goldenseal.
Zinc lozenges may also help speed recovery, perhaps by destroying the cold virus itself. (Read zinc lozenge labels carefully. Only zinc gluconate, ascorbate, and glycinate help fight colds. Don’t buy zinc products containing sorbitol, mannitol, or citric acid. When combined with saliva, these ingredients make zinc ineffective.) Another tip is to try breaking the tablets into quarters; suck on each piece every 30 minutes to 1 hour. If the particular virus you have is sensitive to the zinc, after the fourth tablet you should notice some relief in your sore throat pain.
Get supplement dosages and tips in our WholeHealth Chicago Supplement Recommendations for Colds.
Take aspirin or acetaminophen to reduce fever and ease headache and muscle aches (though children under age 16 should not use aspirin because of a risk of Reye’s syndrome, a rare but potentially fatal childhood disorder).
Many a sore throat is due to the accompanying post nasal drip of a cold; this might be treated with a natural antihistamine such as nettle (250 mg three times a day).
To soothe a sore throat, gargle with warm, salty water several times a day. You can add two droppersful of goldenseal tincture to the gargle as well.
Drinking hot fluids, including tea and chicken soup, is soothing and may help relieve congestion by increasing the flow of nasal secretions.
Colds are debilitating. If you feel exhausted or your symptoms are very painful, rest at home, in bed if necessary, for the first day or two of a cold. (You’ll also avoid spreading the virus to others.)
Use over-the-counter cough and cold remedies sparingly, if at all. Avoid “all-in-one” cold medicines that combine ingredients for a variety of symptoms. Their effectiveness is very limited.
To reduce your risk of catching a cold, try to limit your exposure to people with colds, and don’t share objects, such as phones, pencils, cups, and towels, with them. Wash your hands frequently, and avoid touching your face with unwashed hands.
During the winter use a humidifier or cool-mist vaporizer to add moisture to dry, indoor air.
When to Call a Doctor
If cold symptoms last for more than 10 days, especially if they get worse. You should see a doctor if you develop a productive bronchial cough, sinus congestion and pain (especially if your mucous discharge turns yellow or brown or green in color.
If you run a fever above 100°F for three days straight, or above 103°F at any time
If you have a sore throat accompanied by a fever that stays above 101°F for 24 hours. (This could be a sign of strep throat, which requires treatment with antibiotics.)
Patients with any chronic respiratory disorder, such as asthma, bronchitis, or emphysema, can really get quite ill and develop pneumonia from a common cold. If you suffer any of these, be prepared to call your physician quickly if you find yourself getting worse.
If after a few days, your cold suddenly takes a turn for the worse, and you develop chest pain, shortness of breath, a productive cough, and a high fever. These are the usual symptoms of pneumonia.
From David Edelberg, M.D. at WholeHealth Chicago: Because many of the symptoms of a common cold (watery eyes, nasal discharge, cough) are actually your body’s attempts to get rid of the virus, conventional cold remedies, which act to suppress these symptoms, don’t make a lot of sense. Antibiotics, often requested by patients themselves, make even less sense (except for their expensive placebo effect) because they fight bacteria, not viruses.
The supplements we recommend at WholeHealth Chicago, on the other hand, work to combat the cold viruses themselves and to strengthen your immune system rather than to suppress your symptoms. This means that short-term you may not feel all that different, but your cold may depart much sooner.
How to Take the Supplements
Start using all of the immune-boosters–echinacea, vitamin C, vitamin A, zinc, and garlic–at the first sign of a scratchy throat, stuffy nose, or watery eyes. Continue taking them for five to seven days. Then reduce the dosages as indicated for another five to seven days–especially vitamin A, which is not meant for long-term use at high doses.
If you wish to enhance your overall resistance during cold season, you can continue with lower doses of vitamin C (1,000 mg twice a day). We often recommend rotating vitamin C with the herbs echinacea, astragalus, and reishi/maitake mushrooms. You might also consider following this regimen if you think you’re more susceptible to colds than your friends and family are, or if you notice a lot of people around you are coming down with colds and you want to avoid joining them.
For special consideration
If you think you think you’re someone who’s more susceptible to viruses during pre-period days, start using a PMS herbal combination (2 pills twice a day when not menstruating). This blend of herbs includes chasteberry and dong quai, and it will help balance your hormones and reduce your chances of having PMS (and a cold) every few months.
If you find that stress and colds seem to go hand and hand in your life, try using kava (250 mg 3 times a day) until you get the stress under better control. It may help you avoid getting yet another cold next month, and another after that, and so on. The Healing Path for Colds provides more extensive therapeutic information about this condition.
We at WholeHealth Chicago strongly recommend that everyone take a high-potency multivitamin/mineral and well-balanced antioxidant complex every day. It may be necessary to adjust the dosages outlined below to account for your own daily vitamin regimen. All of our supplement recommendations also assume you are eating a healthful diet.
Be aware that certain cautions are associated with taking individual supplements, especially if you have other medical conditions and/or you’re taking medications. Key cautions are given in the listing below, but you need to see the WholeHealth Chicago Reference Library for a comprehensive discussion of each supplement’s cautions and drug/nutrient interactions.
For product recommendations and orders click here for the Natural Apothecary or call 773-296-6700 ext. 2001.
David Edelberg, MD