Wear a scarf. Stay out of the cold. Take this. Swallow that. There's so much (mis)information out there about what does and does not cause or help the common cold, that it makes me happy to see there's a new book out there pretty much flipping all our folk wisdom and anecdotal expertise right on its ear.
Jennifer Ackerman, author of Ah-Choo! The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold (Twelve Books, Sept 2010), busted up quite a few myths about the common cold today on my daily radio show, Whole Living on Martha Stewart Living Radio, Sirius 112 / XM 157, which I just posted a blog about on the Martha Radio Blog.
For the most part, of course, says Ackerman, colds are not deadly (unless your health is compromised in some way), but they are just so completely inconvenient and quite frankly ridiculous--it seems we should have engineered colds out of our lives long ago. But they remain part of our life here on the planet. Ackerman's book provides a really fascinating look at the misunderstandings around the common cold--as well as how a cold seems to work and what we can (and cannot) do to prevent it.
What Does and Doesn't Work
Ackerman advises against multi-symptom over the counter cold remedies, and says treating by symptom may be better. One of her experts says he takes acetaminophen at the sign of a cold to stave off discomfort and inflammation. Other people swear by echinacea, elderberry, garlic (like me).
And while Ackerman, based on her research, remains dubious about really any product that claims to really address or prevent the common cold (aside from temporarily easing some of its symptoms), she does say that it appears exercise seems to be one of the few ways of staving it off.
...By the way, antibacterial hand gels do NOTHING to protect you from the cold (like antibiotics, they're designed to kill bacteria, not viruses), washing your hands is of utmost importance--with plain old soap and water. (Neither does wearing a coat--catching cold has nothing to do with being cold, says Ackerman.)
You know what increases your chances of getting sick (aside from touching a surface and then rubbing your eyes or nose)? Stress. Another reason to take time out to get enough sleep, to practice techniques that can help reduce the stress response.
In fact, that's the silver lining as far as colds go, says Ackerman (who willingly was infected with the cold virus and holed up in a hotel room for nine days as part of a study): A cold that wipes you out for a day or two may be just the thing you need: To stay home and relax.
Think Echinacea's a Sham? Elderberry's a hoax? I Take It Anyway
I'll add this: Ackerman flat out told me that she doubted that elderberry syrup was really doing anything for me when I have a cold. And you know what? I don't care. I will continue to take it when I feel a cold coming on.
To me, the practice of self care is just as important, if not more so, than the remedy itself. It makes me feel better just by doing it, whether it's dosing with echinacea, or swallowing a clove of garlic. And so in many way I see natural remedies as a kind of safe, mindful practice that underscores the importance of taking care of myself. (I'll also swear they work--placebo or not.)
We've published quite a few stories about colds and flu in Whole Living magazine. Here are a few worth checking out if you'd like to do further reading:
What's your favorite home remedy? What do you absolutely swear by when it comes to dealing with the cold? Tell us!
Terri Trespicio is senior features editor at Whole Living magazine and the host of "Whole Living" on Martha Stewart Living Radio, which airs every day at 10a East / 7a West on Sirius 112 / XM 157. Follow her on twitter @TerriT.