The Health Service: Reflections on the common cold

by Dr. Lee Stapleton
UHS Doctor

If you’re suffering from a cold, it is anything but “common.” It is hard to imagine how you could feel worse. Your nose is totally stopped up. You long to crawl into bed but fear you might suffocate if you lie down. Your head aches and worse yet, you’re getting a sore throat. Chances are you have a paper or presentation due tomorrow. You stop by the health service hoping to “nip it in the bud” and some well-meaning person tells you Z-Paks don’t work for colds. There is no justice.

There is hope, however. The first line of defense is prevention. Although dorm life is very conducive to catching other peoples’ colds and flu, there are still ways to avoid getting sick. Don`t smoke (period). Don’t spend time with people who smoke. Second-hand smoke has about the same effect on respiratory epithelium as lighting up. It makes you an easy target for just about everything that comes along. Second, turn down the heat if you can. If you can`t escape overheated interiors consider a small room-size humidifier and OTC nasal saline spray (i.e. “Ocean”). Even if you go to the gym, spend time outdoors running, walking, or biking. Practice Yoga. Take up your option to eat 5-8 servings of fruit and vegetables daily (Chef Rick makes it easy). Eating well boosts your immune system; junk food is costly in more ways than one. Tea—black, green or oolong—boosts immunity as do various other supplements, such as Norwegian Cod Liver Oil (available online). If prevention fails, then what?

People with immune compromise and those with severe asthma may need antibiotic treatment. For the rest of us, allopathic medicine (including the well-known Z-pak) is generally not the answer. OTC remedies like Tylenol, ibuprofen, decongestants, cough syrup and Dayquil and Nyquil (the latter are mixtures of all of the above) may afford considerable relief. They relieve symptoms, and often enable us to continue on our daily work.

However, there are herbal strategies that relieve symptoms and promote healing. Elderberry (tincture and capsules) works well for sore throat. Traditional Chinese medicine offers, among others, Gan Mao Ling (mandarin for “cold and flu reliever”), a mixture of botanicals which works well when taken as directed. It is available from local practitioners and online (if you go online you will note lively debate regarding the use of Chinese herbals by westerners for viral illnesses which is contrary to traditional Chinese philosophy of sickness and healing. Although this may be the case, experience supports their use; they work well). Another OTC product, Airborne, a mixture of botanicals, vitamins and minerals, is remarkably effective if taken at the first sign of cold symptoms. This does not exhaust the list of alternative remedies. To stay well, don’t smoke and don`t breathe other peoples’ smoke; be kind to your airways. Boost your immune system: eat well, allocate time for sleep and exercise and spend time outdoors. Drink more tea. If you get frequent colds in winter, consider cod liver oil.

If you catch cold, think alternatively. If your cold worsens or progresses and fails to resolve with common sense measures; if you have sore throat, fever, chills, painful cough, body aches or shortness of breath please give us a call so we can see you at Health Services.

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