It’s that time of year again: There’s a definite chill to the air, Christmas music is playing everywhere you turn, and half the people you know seem to have runny noses or hacking coughs.
While avoiding getting sick this time of year may seem like fighting a losing battle — especially if you regularly find yourself around large groups of people — there are ways to keep yourself safe from cold viruses.
Viruses spread more easily in cold, dry air, which is one of the reasons why people tend to get sick in the winter months, said Aimee Blum, registered nurse and Emergency Department director at Canyon Vista Medical Center in Sierra Vista.
“It’s the weather changes, and we’re all very busy, so there's an increase in stress around the holiday, which can lower your immune system as well,” said Blum. “So it’s a combination.”
Colds can typically last about two weeks, and be contagious for about the first five to seven days, she said.
If you notice co-workers or family members coughing and sneezing, good old-fashioned hand-washing — and keeping away from them as much as possible — is the best way to keep yourself from getting sick.
“You should try and avoid contact with other people and being in a large group,” said Blum. “That and washing your hands is the most effective way to reduce the spread of a cold. It’s those particle droplets when from you sneeze and cough that land on areas near you, on surfaces and other people’s hands and stuff like that, that spreads (the virus.)”
If you are already sick and want to keep from infecting other people (and can’t stay home from work,) Blum recommends wearing a disposable mask and washing your hands frequently, especially after your sneeze or cough.
It is also a good idea to kick up efforts to strengthen your immune system during cold and flu season, said Sue Ellen Clements, a certified herbalist at the Sierra Vista Food Co-Op. Many different foods and supplements can keep your system in tip-top shape should you encounter a cold virus, she said.
“Foods that are high in vitamin C are really good for building up your immune system,” said Clements, who also said she likes taking a wellness formula supplement, containing garlic, zinc and other vitamin C, along with other ingredients, during cold and flu season.
“Once you’re already sick, vitamin C won’t help as much as you think it will, but to keep from getting sick, it’s great. There are some things you wouldn’t think —like bell peppers are very high in Vitamin C. Citrus fruit, oranges, lemons, grapefruits, things like that. Strawberries are also very high.
“There are so many wonderful things out there you can grab it from.”
While vitamin C is a good immune booster, it is water-soluble, meaning that excess vitamin C is eliminated in urine. So trying to fight off a cold by taking a large amount won’t do you any good.
However, there are some supplements that can both boost your immune system and shorten the duration of a cold if you are already sick. Zinc, a mineral found in many supplements and over-the-counter cold medicines, is among the most effective, said Blum.
“Over-the-counter zinc is a wonderful medicinal to take if you feel the onset of a cold,” she said. “It can actually help stop the virus from spreading, and help you get over your systems faster.”
There are also many herbs that can also help to alleviate systems and get you feeling better faster, which can be taken in forms including tinctures, lozenge or tea form, said Clements. Some of the ingredients she looks for are horehound (a type of herb used to make the classic hard candy,) slippery elm (good for coating a sore throat and suppressing a cough), echinacea (an immune-booster), elderberry and peppermint.
Teas are a particular good way to ingest such herbs, she said.
“Teas are the easiest medicinal thing you can do, and you’re craving warm drinks this time of year anyway,” she said. “You’re getting hydrated, it’s liquid, so it’s going directly to your bloodstream instead of sitting around waiting to be digested.”
If you’re on certain types of medication — especially blood thinners — you should check with your doctor or pharmacist before trying new herbal teas and supplements, added Clements.
Another tip for getting over a cold faster? Blowing your nose consistently (no matter how embarrassing it is!).
“A lot of people don’t blow their nose fast enough, and part of having a runny nose is a way of expelling the virus,” explained Blum.
After you stock up on healthy foods, supplements, tissues, and hand soap, a final way to prepare for the season cold and flu season is to get a flu shot (available at many medical offices, clinics and pharmacies near you.)
Christmas confetti rice
Want to try a tasty dish that has immune-system boosting Vitamin C? Sue Ellen Clements said bell-pepper-filled confetti rice, which her grandmother used to prepare, is a good way to to get some of the important vitamin into your diet.
Here’s a basic version to try.
1 cup uncooked long grain rice
¼ cup water
½ cup diced red bell peppers
½ cup diced green bell peppers
1 can chicken broth
Salt, pepper and other seasonings to taste
(* for an extra immune-building boost, trying adding in a hefty spoonful of sauteed garlic and a squeeze of lemon juice.)
Directions: Combine rice and liquid in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil, stir in peppers. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for about 20 minutes, or until rice is tender. Remove from heat and season. Cover and let stand for about five minutes until liquid is absorbed.
“Honestly, I wash my hands and isolate myself,” said Blum, of her own cold-fighting strategy. “And I get my flu shot!”