Every winter, millions of people get sick from colds and coughs. Usually stemming from contagious viral infections, colds cause irritating symptoms that can be slow to resolve. Most adults will suffer through two to three colds a year, and it is common for young children to experience even more.
While there is no cure for a cold, over-the-counter medicine can provide some relief. The first line of defense, though, should always be prevention. Luckily, there are many natural ways to boost the immune system and prevent colds before they start.
Research shows that simple hand washing can prevent almost 20% of coughs and colds. When someone sneezes or coughs, surfaces in the area become covered with germ-filled respiratory droplets. People then tough these surfaces, spreading the germs to their mouths, nose, and eyes. Regular hand-washing is the number one way to prevent the spread of illness.
Daily stressors make people more susceptible to coughs and colds. Stress causes the immune system to produce a chronic inflammatory response and weakens the body's ability to fight off infections. Chronic stress also decreases the number of lymphocytes in the body, which are key to warding off viruses.
Simple ways to help alleviate chronic stress include practicing mindfulness, taking deep breaths, and incorporating exercise into a weekly routine.
Not only does physical activity help reduce stress, but it also aids in the prevention of coughs and colds. Studies suggest that people who exercise consistently experience a 40–50% reduction in sick days per year. Moderate-intensity exercise seems to improve the circulation of immunity cells throughout the body, helping to prevent sickness.
It is worth noting that moderate-intensity exercise yields the best results for immune support—doing too much high-intensity exercise has been connected to immune system suppression because the body is too busy recovering from the frequent workouts to fight off illness as well.
Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables is vital for a healthy lifestyle and is an easy way to help prevent sickness. Full of good-for-you vitamins and minerals, these plants help boost immune response and increase the body's ability to ward off infection.
A study found that participants who consumed a dietary supplement made exclusively from fruits and vegetables experienced a 20% reduction in the number of days they experienced severe cold symptoms. Of course, getting fruits and vegetables through food sources is far superior (and often cheaper) than supplements.
Spending more time outside is an easy way to help prevent coughs and colds. New research supports the idea that sunlight protects us from getting sick from colds and coughs. While scientists remain uncertain as to exactly why this happens, many suggest that vitamin D modulates and boosts immune function.
Getting outside also helps prevent the spread of colds and coughs because the respiratory droplets are carried away from others on a larger volume of air than when indoors, thereby minimizing the transfer of germs from one person to another.
While it is well-known that humidifiers help make congestion more bearable, these household machines are also beneficial for preventing the spread of cold-causing germs. Viruses thrive in dry air, so adding moisture to the room makes them less likely to survive or spread.
The cilia in the nose trap viruses and prevent them from triggering an immune response, but dry air prevents cilia from moving freely; keeping a humidifier running helps keep viruses from traveling beyond the nose.
Both moderate and heavy alcohol consumption can contribute to illness by adversely impacting the immune system. Research suggests that frequent alcohol consumption prevents the immune system's macrophages from binding to bacteria and viruses— this increases the likelihood of symptomatic infection from a cold.
However, light drinking (three or fewer drinks per week) was not correlated with increased viral sickness.
Research shows that supplements can play a critical role in immune health and the prevention of colds. For cough and cold prevention, vitamin C, vitamin D, and zinc yield the best results. Studies suggest that regular supplementation with vitamins C and D aids in the prevention of colds, while zinc performed best in shortening the duration of illness.
There seems to be a surprising connection between gut microbiota and the immune system. Almost 80% of immune cells reside within the intestines, and recent research revealed that people with smaller populations of "good" bacteria in their gut were more likely to come down with colds or coughs than those who had a more diverse microbiome.
Increasing pre- and probiotic foods is a simple and efficient way to improve gut health, but always check in with a doctor before making any major changes to your diet, especially if you take medication for another condition.
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Often overlooked in our busy world, a good night's sleep should not be taken for granted. Studies show that the immune system is restored during sleep as cytokines are released.
When we don't get enough sleep, infection-fighting antibodies can be at an all-time low, making us more susceptible to colds and coughs. Professionals recommend that adults get eight to nine hours of sleep per night.
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