Debunking Cold & Flu Home Remedies
Dr. Brian Richardson
Coughs, runny noses, fevers, chills, and that don’t-wan- to-get-out-of-bed-season is about to arrive. Cold and flu season are dreaded about as much as prostate exams in my office. Last year was one of the worst flu seasons in recent history, with over 80,000 deaths and over 900,000 hospitalizations in the US. As a physician, I am often asked about my thoughts on the flu shot. Not a season goes by without a phone call from a friend or family member asking me for a Z-Pak or some form of antibiotic. Having a cold or the flu is pretty miserable. It’s time we separate faction from fiction.
I remember as child always being told by my parents or grandparents, “you better put on a coat or you are going to catch a cold.” I then learned in medical school that chilly weather was not as important as the virus or bacteria that were causing the illness. We learn these types of myths based on the temporal relationship between illness and weather. The reality is that we do have a “cold and flu” season and it is in fact in the colder months of the year, however, that does not mean you can’t catch a cold or flu in other times of the year or that those mittens and scarves are going to bullet proof you from an infection.
Just recently, I found myself having that awful feeling of a cold. I did like lots of consumers do and I drove myself to the pharmacy, went to the appropriate aisle, and started looking for anything that might relieve my symptoms. Sixty dollars later and armed with a bag full of magic supplements, I walked proudly out of the store with the confidence that I was about to beat this cold with some vitamins and minerals. The reality is that the only people who came out ahead in that vulnerable situation were the owners of the pharmacy and the companies who branded their pills. Turns out, there is very little science to back the mega vitamins and supplement cold and flu scam. In fact, some of the dosages of the vitamins and minerals can have toxic side effects. Did you realize that one of the most popular supplements advertised to prevent or shorten the length of a cold has been shown to possibly cause anosmia? Anosmia means you can no longer smell, and that would be a pretty bad outcome for someone to have permanently as a result of an overpriced supplement that really does not work. 80% of your sense of taste is actually related to smell. I’ll take a day or two extra of feeling bad to be able to recognize that spoiled milk, or, more importantly, to savor that nice glass of wine.
I think we should establish a few baseline FACTS as we enter this upcoming season:
1. Colds and the flu are due to infectious pathogens like bacteria and viruses, NOT weather
2. Infections are treated with antibiotics and antivirals, NOT vitamins and minerals
3. Viruses are NOT treated with antibiotics
4. Cold and flu supplements have very poor scientific data to support their usage and may have devastating unintended side effects
5. The influenza shot is your best chance at prevention of the flu. Period.
Do you remember that year you took the flu shot and still contracted the flu? Yes, that can happen. Believe me; my dad has reminded me of that famous year he took it about 15 years ago. That does not mean the flu shot has no purpose or that the flu vaccine actually gave you the flu. The vaccine is created months in advance of the flu season and is formulated based on scientific data from around the world. However, we can not know exactly which form of the influenza virus is going to be prevalent or which mutation will occur to make it more virulent. If I had the ability to predict the exact vaccination, I could stop buying Mega Millions and Powerball tickets with one in a gazillion odds. Vaccines take time to develop, but the good news is that we are on the brink of being able to mass produce vaccinations that can be created in a much more timely and accurate fashion.
Until that time, there are a few common sense preventative strategies to make this cold and flu season more tolerable.
Don’t let your southern hospitality put you in the hospital. Never underestimate the value of washing your hands and using hand sanitizers. It’s rude to give someone else the cold or flu; it’s not rude to avoid shaking someone’s hand during this season. It’s always rude to not cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, or insist those around you do the same. If you feel sick and think you might have the cold or flu, stay home. Don’t waste your money on overpriced vitamins and supplements. If you do get the cold or flu, stay well hydrated, get plenty of rest, take Tylenol or ibuprofen for body aches and fever, and contact your the doctor if your symptoms worsen or do not improve. Finally, if you do find yourself with a cold or flu, here is my family recipe for that irritating cough and sore throat- one shot of bourbon, one tablespoon of lemon, one tablespoon of honey, and a crushed up peppermint. Mix them all together and get in bed and go to sleep!
Stay healthy Central Alabama!
Dr. Brian Richardson, MD is an Urologist and Chief of Robotics and Minimally Invasive Surgery at Jackson Hospital and Clinic.