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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.

Colds, flus, and herbal medicine continued...

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.

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.

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