In the past two days, three people I work with have called in sick with strep or flu. A couple of others are sniffling suspiciously. This put me on the hunt for what I can do to stay as healthy as possible when all around me seem to be getting sick.
I do all the obvious stuff – get plenty of sleep, eat right and wash my hands regularly. I also take advantage of the Purell dispensers that are all over the building where I work. A couple of weeks ago, I stood in line for 45 minutes to get a free flu shot from my employer. But I wanted to know more.
Many friends of mine rely on natural cold and flu fighters so I thought I would check out the science on some of these. My favorite resource for questions of this kind is the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), a branch of the National Institutes of Health. The info on this site is always clearly written and based on the best available evidence. Here's some of what I learned:
Echinacea. This herb has been used to treat colds for centuries. Proponents say it helps stimulate the immune system to fight infection. It is used fresh or dried to make teas, juice or extracts. Although many people I know swear by echinacea, the science isn't encouraging. Studies are mixed, according to NCCAM, with some showing little benefit when it is made into a juice. Other studies indicate it may help fight upper respiratory infections. The main risk is an allergic reaction.
Vitamin C. Here again, the science is mixed. (I'm beginning to hate that word.) Some studies have shown that Vitamin C doesn't prevent a cold, but it might help make colds less severe. The good news is that Vitamin C is generally safe so it could be worse – and may be worth a try.
Zinc. In 2009, the Food and Drug Administration warned consumers to stop using zinc products that are taken through the nose because of the risk of losing the sense of smell. It's a risk that doesn't seem worth taking since studies so far of zinc, particularly zinc lozenges, haven't determined optimal doses.
It's clear that lots more research is needed on natural remedies. In the meantime, the old advice about washing your hands and getting a lot of sleep is still good. A little chicken soup wouldn't hurt either.