By Dr. Mercola
Each year Americans catch more than one billion colds, making the cold virus the most common infectious disease in the United States. It's estimated that the average U.S. adult typically has two to four colds each year, while children may have up to 12. Colds account for more school absences and missed work than any other illness and are the number one reason people visit their physicians -- even though most physicians have little to offer in the form of treatment.
It's a widespread misconception that colds are caused by bacteria. Colds are actually triggered by viruses, which means if your physician prescribes you an antibiotic, it will be absolutely useless. More on this shortly, but before I delve into simple prevention and treatment strategies, it's important you know how colds are contracted in the first place.
How Do You Catch a Cold?
The most common way cold viruses are spread is not from being around coughing or sneezing, or walking barefoot in the rain, but rather from hand-to-hand contact. For instance, someone with a cold blows their nose then shakes your hand or touches surfaces that you also touch. Cold viruses can live on pens, computer keyboards, coffee mugs, and other objects for hours, so it's easy to come into contact with such viruses during daily life.
However, the key to remember is that just being exposed to a cold virus does not have to mean that you'll catch a cold. If your immune system is operating at its peak, it should actually be quite easy for you to fend off the virus without ever getting sick. On the other hand, if your immune system is impaired, it's akin to having an open-door policy for viruses—they'll easily take hold in your body. So the simple and short answer is, you catch a cold due to a poorly functioning immune system. There are many causes of a weakened immune system, but the more common factors are:
- Eating too much sugar and too many grains
- Not getting enough rest
- Ineffectively managing emotional stresses in your daily life
- Vitamin D deficiency, as discussed below
- Any combination of the above
Vitamin D Deficiency: Another Reason You May 'Catch' a Cold
Research has confirmed that "catching" colds and flu may actually be a symptom of an underlying vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D is a potent antimicrobial agent, producing 200 to 300 different antimicrobial peptides in your body that kill bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Suboptimal vitamin D levels will significantly impair your immune response and make you far more susceptible to contracting colds, influenza, and other respiratory infections.
In the largest and most nationally represented study of its kind to date, involving about 19,000 Americans, people with the lowest vitamin D levels reported having significantly more recent colds or cases of the flu -- and the risk was even greater for those with chronic respiratory disorders like asthma. At least five additional studies also show an inverse association between lower respiratory tract infections and vitamin D levels.
The best source for vitamin D is direct sun exposure. Even though for many of us, this just isn't practical during the winter, every effort should be made to attain vitamin D from UVB exposure as there are many additional benefits from this route other than vitamin D. The next best option to sunlight is the use of a safe indoor tanning device. If neither natural nor artificial sunlight is an option, then using an oral vitamin D3 supplement is acceptable—just beware that mounting evidence suggests supplements cannot compare to sun exposure, as UV radiation provides a number of health benefits you cannot get from a supplement.
Based on the latest research, many experts now agree you need about 35 IU's of vitamin D per pound of body weight. This recommendation also includes children, the elderly, and pregnant women.
However, keep in mind that vitamin D requirements are highly individual, as your vitamin D status is dependent on numerous factors, such as the color of your skin, your location, and how much sunshine you're exposed to
on a regular basis. So, although these recommendations may put you closer to the range of what most people likely need, it is simply impossible to make a blanket recommendation that will cover everyone's needs.
The only way to determine your optimal dose is to get your blood tested. Ideally, you'll want to maintain a vitamin D level of 50-70 ng/ml year-round.
For an in-depth explanation of everything you need to know about determining your ideal vitamin D level, please review my recommendations about vitamin D testing. I strongly recommend that you also listen to my free one-hour vitamin D lecture, which covers in detail the importance of vitamin D to your overall health. The research is very clear. The higher your vitamin D level, the lower your risk of contracting colds, flu, and other respiratory tract infections.
How Long Do Colds Last … and How Can You Make Your Cold Go Away Faster?
Most uncomplicated colds last between eight and nine days, but about 25 percent last two weeks, and five to 10 percent last three weeks. Even the most stubborn colds will typically resolve in a few weeks' time; this is actually one of the ways you can distinguish a cold from allergies. A cold will last, at most, a few weeks, but allergy symptoms can last all season.
How quickly you bounce back is typically defined by you and your collective lifestyle habits -- and this does not mean popping over-the-counter cough and cold remedies or fever reducers. In fact, as long as your temperature remains below 102 degrees Fahrenheit (38.9 degrees Celsius) there is no need to lower it. Cold viruses do not reproduce at higher body temperatures, so a slight fever should help you get rid of the virus quicker and help you to feel better much sooner.
You should avoid taking over-the-counter pain-relief medications as well, as a study showed that people who take aspirin and Tylenol (acetaminophen) suppress their body's ability to produce antibodies to destroy the cold virus. Aspirin has even been linked to lung complications including pulmonary edema, an abnormal buildup of fluid in your lungs, when taken in excess. You should use these medications only when absolutely necessary, such as if you have a temperature greater than 105 degrees F (40.5 degrees C), severe muscle aches or weakness.
Hydrogen Peroxide: A Simple Trick to Beat a Cold
I don't advise over-the-counter medications, but one simple treatment you can try that is surprisingly effective against upper respiratory infections is hydrogen peroxide. Many patients at my Natural Health Center have had remarkable results in curing colds and flu within 12 to 14 hours when administering a few drops of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) into each ear. You will hear some bubbling, which is completely normal, and possibly feel a slight stinging sensation. Wait until the bubbling and stinging subside (usually 5 to 10 minutes), then drain onto a tissue and repeat with the other ear. A bottle of hydrogen peroxide in 3 percent solution is available at any drug store for a couple of dollars or less. It is simply amazing how many people respond to this simple, inexpensive treatment.
Dietary Strategies to Kick a Cold
If you feel yourself coming down with a cold or flu, this is NOT the time to be eating ANY sugar, artificial sweeteners, or processed foods. Sugar is particularly damaging to your immune system -- which needs to be ramped up, not suppressed, in order to combat an emerging infection. So, if you are fighting a cold, you'll want to avoid all sugar like the plague, and this includes sugar in the form of fruit juice and even grains (which break down as sugar in your body).
Ideally, you must address nutrition, sleep, exercise, and stress the moment you first feel yourself getting a bug. This is when immune-enhancing strategies will be most effective. When you're coming down with a cold, it's time to address ALL of the contributing factors immediately, which includes tweaking your diet in favor of foods that will strengthen your immune response. Those factors are outlined in the table that follows.