The common cold isn’t likely to land you in the hospital but having one is a big inconvenience. No one wants to be around you and it’s hard to be productive if you can’t breathe through your nose. Chances are you haven’t seen your last cold. The average person gets around three colds each year, usually in the fall, winter, and early spring.
Have you ever noticed how some people seem resistant to the common cold, despite how contagious the cold virus is? For most people, all it takes is a cough or sneeze to send the virus airborne and into someone’s nostrils. You can also pick up the cold virus by touching a surface another cold sufferer has touched. It’s probable that genes play a role in why some people manage to dodge the common cold and others succumb, but lifestyle is a factor too.
You already know the obvious ways to prevent colds – wash your hands, stay away from people who are sick, and avoid putting your hands and fingers around your mouth or nose – but doing these things is no guarantee you won’t get a bad case of the sniffles. The cold virus is pretty robust.
So what CAN you do to lower your risk of being stricken with a cold?
Prevent Colds: Get Your Beauty Sleep
As it turns out, sleep does more than make you bright eyed and bushy tailed; it bolsters your defenses against the pesky cold virus. According to a new study, getting less than six hours of sleep nightly quadruples the risk of catching a cold. The reason? Blame it on your immune system. When you burn the midnight oil, it cripples your defenses against cold viruses. Turns out your immune cells need rest too. This adds to a growing body of evidence that lack of sleep is bad for your overall health.
Prevent Colds: Get Your Zinc
While not extensively studied in adults, zinc appears to ward off the common cold in children. One study showed kids who took 10 to 15 milligrams of zinc sulfate daily experienced fewer colds than children who took a placebo.
It’s not surprising that zinc lowers the risk for colds due to its role in immune health. When you’re deficient in zinc, cells called T-cells that battle viruses don’t function as well. Plus, research suggests many older adults may need more zinc than they’re currently getting. For one, some older adults don’t absorb zinc as well as younger people.
Of course, the best way to get zinc is by eating foods rich in zinc. At the top of the list of good sources of zinc are oysters, but red meat and chicken follows closely behind. Whole grains are another reliable source, but you may not absorb zinc from these foods as well. Whole grains contain phytates, compounds that reduce the absorption of minerals like zinc. Beans, peas, and almonds are other decent sources of zinc.
Prevent Colds: Work Out but Don’t Overdo It
By boosting your immune system, working out may lower your risk for catching the latest cold virus making its rounds. Staying physically active over long periods of time supports healthy immunity, offering added resistance against colds. On the other hand, overtraining, especially if you’re not sleeping enough or eating enough, can have the opposite effect – it can increase your risk for upper respiratory viruses. For example, one study showed 90 minutes or more of high-intensity exercise increased susceptibility to cold viruses for up to three days afterward.
Of course, most people, with the exception of athletes, don’t train at a high intensity for 90 minutes or more at a time. A good marker for whether you’re pushing too hard is how you feel. If you’re fatigued, sore, and mentally drained, it’s time to take a few days off or lighten your workout.
Prevent Colds: Add More Spice to Your Life
Two spices, in particular, may offer protection against upper respiratory infections – garlic and ginger. The spice ginger contains compounds called sesquiterpenes that help combat rhinoviruses, the most common viruses that cause colds. Garlic also wins points for having anti-viral properties. One study showed garlic may prevent recurrence of upper respiratory infections, but more research is needed. On the other hand, garlic has other health benefits, particularly for your heart, so why not add it to your favorite dishes?
Prevent Colds: Keep Your Gut Healthy
Inside your small intestinal tract, are trillions of bacteria, called probiotics, that help keep your digestive tract healthy and support your immune system. One study involving children who attended daycare showed those who took probiotics combined with supplemental vitamins and minerals experienced flu-like symptoms. Of course, it’s not clear whether it was the probiotics or the supplemental vitamins and minerals that made a difference. A meta-analysis that analyzed 10 studies looking at probiotics for cold prevention showed probiotics modestly reduced cold frequency in adults. Time to eat more gut-friendly yogurt!
What Might Not Work
Linus Pauling would be disappointed to hear that research doesn’t support the idea that vitamin C prevents colds, although the news isn’t all bad. What studies DO show is taking high doses of vitamin C may modestly shorten the duration of cold symptoms, by a day or two. On the other hand, vitamin C is essential for healthy immune function, so being deficient likely increases the risk for colds and other illnesses.
The Bottom Line
Colds are no fun and they always seem to show up at the worst times. The best way to deal with colds is to prevent them. While there are no surefire ways to do that, doing these things along with the obvious stuff like washing your hands may give you an edge when it comes to staying healthy this fall and winter.
Rather than singling out specific vitamins, make sure you’re arming your immune system with a variety of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals by eating whole foods and lots of colorful fruits and vegetables.
WebMD “Too Little Sleep May Quadruple Your Risk for Colds”
Sleep. Volume 38, Issue 09. August 2015.
Live Science. “Preventing and Treating a Cold: What Works?” January 27, 2014.
National Institutes of Health. “Zinc”
MedLine Plus. “Vitamin C and Colds”
ACE Fitness. “Can Exercise Reduce Your Risk of Catching a Cold?”
University of Maryland Medical Center. “Common Cold”
Korean J Fam Med. 2013 Jan; 34(1): 2-10.
Hemilä H, Chalker E. Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold.Cochrane Database Syst Rev.
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