Cold and Flu : Fall Into Cold and Flu Season

Fall’s cooling temperatures and changing colors signal the start of cold and flu season which also happens to coincide with the return of school. All of that togetherness and close contact means kids will be bringing home more than just their homework. No need to despair, just be prepared.

According to the National Institutes of Health colds occur more frequently in the fall and winter months for a variety of reasons. The most common cold virus thrives in drier, less humid air. This also can lead to drying of the nasal passages which further increases one’s risk for a viral infection. Being cooped up indoors with other people for longer periods of time also increases the risk that cold and flu viruses will spread.


Fortunately, there are actions we can take that will help protect us from colds and flu.

1. Wash your hands. This is a very simple and effective act we should get in the habit of doing, especially after shaking hands or touching public doorknobs, stair hand rails, shopping carts, etc. Anti-bacterial soap is not necessary!

2. Practice nasal irrigation. Using a neti pot or other nasal irrigation device helps keep the nasal passages moist and clears thick mucous and viral products from the nose. Children can benefit from saline sprays containing xylitol if they are not yet ready for nasal irrigation.

3. Consider a flu shot. Some groups are especially at risk for flu complications and may need to consider getting a flu shot, including the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. Ask your doctor if you are at risk.

4. Contain sneezes and coughs to prevent spreading to others. Wash hands after doing so.

5. Keep at least a 3-4 day supply of food and water at home. This way if an outbreak occurs in your area you won’t have to go out unnecessarily.

6. Consider keeping the kids home and work from home if possible during an outbreak.

7. If you are sick, stay home to prevent spreading it to others.

8. Support your immune system so it can better handle incoming viral threats.

Immune System Support

Cold and flu viruses take advantage of a weakened immune system. Factors that can weaken the immune system include excess alcohol and sugar consumption, stress, and lack of sleep. A healthy diet, moderate exercise, enough sleep, and stress control form the foundation for an immune system that will be ready to fend off cold and flu viruses.

Adequate, but not excessive, intakes of vitamins A, C, E, and B6, zinc, and iron appear to be especially important in maintaining immunity. Most people, and especially those with type 2 diabetes, benefit from a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement. It can help meet the basic nutritional needs of those who are stressed or who don’t eat a healthy balanced diet. Make sure your multi includes selenium. According to Dr. Melinda Beck, Ph.D., professor of pediatrics and nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a diet lacking adequate amounts of selenium could lead to mutations in the flu virus making it more dangerous. Food sources include Brazil nuts, tuna, chicken, sunflower seeds, garlic and wheat. 55 micrograms per day is the current RDA for adults.

Eat a variety of phytochemical-rich fruits and vegetables. Aim for at least 2-3 servings of fruits and 3-5 servings of vegetables every day. Phytochemicals include a variety of special plant compounds that act in various ways to help support the immune system. Fruits and vegetables with deep or bright colors are especially rich in phytochemicals. Sweet potatoes, kale, blueberries and cherries are a few examples.

Now is the time to kick up the flavor with a variety of spices. Garlic, ginger, and turmeric are common spices with immune boosting and anti-viral properties. Mushrooms are another super-food when it comes to immunity. Maitake and shiitake mushrooms are rich in beta-glucans which are potent immune stimulators.

Because viruses cause colds and the flu, antibiotics will not help you recover any faster. In fact, they kill “friendly” bacteria in your body known as probiotics. Probiotics help maintain balance in the GI tract by warding off unwanted bacteria and yeast, and recent studies suggest that probiotics can help reduce the length and severity of cold symptoms. Probiotic bacteria are found in yogurt and kefir and are also available in supplement form.

If you do catch a cold or the flu, there are a few options available to help ease symptoms and speed recovery. Rather than giving your child conventional cough medicine, give them a spoonful of honey (if they are over 12 months old). A 2007 study by Penn State College of Medicine found honey to provide better relief than the cough medicine-and honey is safe and yummy.

Studies have found adults taking zinc lozenges containing 9-24 mg elemental zinc gluconate or acetate every 2 hours at the first sign of a cold can significantly decrease the length and severity of the cold. Echinacea is a popular herb that appears to help boost activity of immune cells responsible for fighting all kinds of infections. The use of echinacea for longer than six to eight weeks is not recommended however, as it appears to lose effectiveness. Therefore, you shouldn’t take echinacea throughout the entire cold and flu season. Take it only if you have been exposed or feel symptoms coming on. Additionally, the effectiveness of echinacea in studies has been mixed, but the best evidence appears to be when the Echinacea purpurea species is used.

The elderberry, which is a dark purple to black colored berry, seems to hold great potential for those unlucky enough to come down with the flu. Some studies have found that elderberry extract can help reduce the severity of symptoms and duration of the flu by more than 50%. It contains a variety of plant phytochemicals that possess anti-inflammatory and immune stimulating properties. It also appears to help block the virus from replicating and entering cells. It is best to stock up now on this product as it can become difficult to find during peak cold and flu season.

Megan Witt RD, LD, 2008
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