How To Stay Well (When Everyone Else Is Sick)
No need to go into hiding: These research-proven strategies will protect you at the office, on planes, and in crowded malls
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• Sleep at least seven hours a night. A good night's rest revitalizes you and lowers the odds you'll wake up with a sore throat, cough, and runny nose. In a study at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, participants who logged fewer than seven hours were nearly three times more likely to come down with a cold than those who got more rest.
Too little sleep triggers a drop in the activity of your immune system's natural killer cells — a falloff of as much as 30%, a study from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm suggests. "Killer cells are one of your body's first defenses against cold and flu viruses — they keep an infection under control until it can be eliminated by more targeted types of immune cells," explains lead researcher Elinor Fondell, Ph.D. (For how-tos on extending and improving your snooze time, see "25 Ways to Sleep Better Tonight".)
• Keep zinc lozenges in your desk drawer. If you start sucking on these as soon as you feel the first sniffle (that's why you want the lozenges at hand), your cold will be shorter and less severe, new research has found. But in order to reap the benefit, you need the right formula, which gets a little tricky. In a review study from Finland, lozenges that provide at least 75 mg a day of zinc reduced the length of a cold by up to 42%, while lower doses had no effect on symptoms.
You need a product that effectively releases its zinc ions — the active ingredient, explains study author Harri Hemila, M.D., Ph.D., a professor at the University of Helsinki. "Some lozenges contain ingredients, such as citric acid for flavoring, that bind zinc, making it unavailable," he says. Two brands that pass the "release test," according to a recent analysis: Cold-Eeze and Walgreens' Zinc Cold Remedy Lozenges. To get a high enough dose (based on the milligrams of ions that are actually released), you'll need to suck on 10 lozenges a day. You may want to keep taking them for one to two weeks, the treatment time used in most studies. The main side effect you can expect: a bad taste, which goes away once you stop taking the lozenges.
• Steer clear of coughers. In a German study, guests who hugged, kissed, or just talked with a sick teenager — before she started to cough or show other symptoms of the H1N1 virus — didn't catch it from her. What's more, even after the girl developed symptoms, such as fever and coughing, only those participants who chatted with her for 15 minutes or longer or who kissed her got infected.
This isn't the only study to suggest that you don't need to be overly fearful of "silent spreaders": When a team of researchers from the University of Hong Kong, Harvard University, and the CDC followed more than a thousand men and women during the 2008 flu season, the scientists estimated that only 1% to 8% caught the virus from people without symptoms. So don't skip holiday parties, but if a guest is coughing or seems feverish or is complaining of a sore throat, cut your conversation short and blow a friendly kiss as you move on.