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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.

Does vitamin C help colds?

The jury is out on whether vitamin C can prevent a cold. And according to the latest research, vitamin C doesn’t make a cold shorter or less severe.

Although experts do not recommend upping your dosage for that purpose, some say it may help ward off germs if you’ve been exposed to physical or environmental stress -- for example, with especially strenuous exercise or exposure to bitter cold weather.

Even so, some people swear by it. “I have some vitamin C in my diet every day, but I bump the dose up when I get sick,” Richter says.

“Generally it will reduce the length of the symptoms by at least a day or two and also will help with the severity,” she says. An extra 500 milligrams a day is about all you need.

Sore throat remedies

When their throats are scratchy and raw, doctors often find relief from items stocked in their pantry and fridge. “I’m a big believer in herbal tea with honey and lemon,” Fryhofer says. “It’s easy to get down because it’s warm and comforting.” Honey may also help if you have a cough. One study showed that buckwheat honey relieved children’s coughs even better than the cough suppressant dextromethorphan.

Chicken soup for colds and flu

Doctors say they use over-the-counter decongestants and antihistamines only when their symptoms are severe, and even then only sparingly. Many prefer natural alternatives, such as saline (salt and water) solution, which helps clear out nasal mucus. “One time when I had a cold I used it 18 times in one day,” says Marcella Bothwell, MD, FAAP, a pediatric otolaryngologist at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego. “You won’t get side effects from saline. Your body is mostly water, so you’re just putting into it what’s already there.”

Grandma’s good old-fashioned “penicillin” is another great soother of stuffed noses. “I’ve enjoyed chicken soup for years,” says Schachter. “The vapor alone clears nasal passages and relieves the throbbing in the sinuses.” Recently researchers have discovered what grandmothers have suspected all along -- that the ingredients in chicken soup (including the chicken stock, carrot, onion, and celery) might actually have a medicinal effect on the body’s immune system, easing the inflammation caused by cold viruses.

Preventing colds and flu with acupuncture

The ancient Chinese medical tradition of using hair-thin needles to stimulate pressure points around the body has been used to treat everything from headaches to arthritis, and there’s some suggestion it might help with colds as well.

“I’m a huge fan of acupuncture, and I use it for prevention because there are many studies that show acupuncture boosts your immune system,” Richter says. “I get it about every six to eight weeks, and then more frequently if I get sick.” There isn’t any real evidence that acupuncture relieves colds, but considering the few side effects, trying it probably can’t hurt.

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