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Preventing Cold & Flu: How Doctors Keep Germs at Bay

Doctors give their top tips for avoiding nasty cold and flu germs.

Exercise for immunity

A jog around the block a few times a week not only can do wonders for your physique -- it also might prevent you from getting sick. “I try to get 20 to 30 minutes of cardio every morning before I go to work,” Fryhofer says. “There’s something about making your heart pump that’s good for your body. It strengthens your heart and strengthens your immune system.”  

The research seems to agree -- one study found that postmenopausal women who exercised for a year had one-third the colds of women who didn’t work out. 

What about exercise if you’re already sick? The general rule is if your symptoms are above the neck (stuffy nose, sneezing), go ahead. But if you have a fever higher than 100 degrees, a cough, or chills, hold off on the workout front for a few days until you feel better.

Colds, flus, and herbal medicine

There’s been a lot of buzz about herbal remedies for preventing and shortening the duration of colds. Although the research on whether they work shows mixed results, some of the doctors we spoke with said they do find relief from natural remedies.

“I use echinacea and goldenseal because they help boost the immune system and fight off microbes,” says Lauren Richter, DO, assistant professor of family and community medicine at the University of Maryland Center for Integrative Medicine. “I like the teas, but a lot of people don’t like the taste, so pills are fine.”

Even so, studies haven’t found much evidence that echinacea prevents upper respiratory infections, but some of its extracts (such as E. pallida and E. purpurea) may help you feel better if you are already sick. 

“Sometimes when I have been exposed to someone who has a very obvious cold or the flu, or if I’m feeling just a little bit off, I’ll take a zinc lozenge,” Schachter says. “That’s my protective shield.” He says he limits himself to one or two a day, because they can cause an upset stomach and dry mouth.

Does zinc actually work? Some studies show it can shorten the duration and reduce the severity of colds, while others have found the evidence isn’t strong enough yet to recommend it.

Most of the doctors we spoke with aren’t convinced that using herbal remedies is worth the effort.

“I do not take echinacea or zinc,” Tolcher says. “I’m just not a believer in them, and the research on them is not impressive.”

One note of caution if you do take herbal remedies: Check with your doctor first. Just because they’re all-natural doesn’t mean they don’t have side effects; for example, some studies have shown that zinc nasal sprays and swabs may reduce your sense of smell.

More important, herbal remedies may interfere with medicines you’re already taking.

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