Upper respiratory infections (URI's) typically begin with a sore or scratchy throat, aversion to cold or alternating chills and feverish sensations, fatigue and muscle aches and progress to either chest symptoms, such as cough and tightness, or to sinus problems (aka "head colds"). These symptoms can last from several days to several weeks.
The common cold can be caused by a wide variety of viruses, many of which we are constantly exposed to, yet most people only "catch cold" once or twice a year. This implies that it is a decrease in our resistance, not simply exposure to a virus, which causes us to catch a cold.
Many people take decongestants, antihistamines, cough suppressants and other over-the-counter medications to feel better and be able to continue our normal routines. However, these can often interfere with the body's normal defense mechanisms and could actually prolong the illness. For example, when viruses invade the lining of the respiratory tract, our tissues increase the production of mucus to "wash out" the invading organisms. This mucus is also filled with antibodies and other immune chemicals to attack these viruses. When we take antihistamines and decongestants, we put the brakes on this process, which allows the viruses to stay in the body longer.
Another example is the role of fever in illness. Many people consider fever an unpleasant symptom of disease which when overcome signals recovery from the illness. They will, therefore, take medications to reduce their fever. While it may be important to bring fevers down when they get too high, the low grade fevers (100º - 102º) we get with most URI's are actually the body's response to infection and part of the body's defense mechanisms. Increased temperature and metabolic rate makes the immune system work more quickly and efficiently and inhibits viral reproduction. In other words, our fever isn't caused by the virus but by our immune response to the virus. Many traditional therapies for URI's actually involve sweating or warming the body to create brief artificial fevers so our immune systems can obtain the upper hand in the battle between virus and human.
So, what can we do to prevent URI's or deal with them effectively once we've caught cold? Fortunately, there are many common sense natural therapies at our disposal.
The first step is prevention. Maintaining a healthy immune system is a prime way to protect against getting an excessive number of colds. Good nutrition is fundamental, with beta-carotenes (found in vegetables and fruits), vitamin C and zinc being particularly important. All of these are antioxidants which protect against free radical damage to cells and enhance a variety of immune functions.
Proper stress management is also important, as chronic stress can weaken the immune system and set us up for recurrent URI's or prolonged illness. During the stress response, chemicals are released from the adrenal glands which cause the thymus to shrink and reduce its activity. People who are under excessive stress should be certain to eat a proper diet and even supplement some of the nutrients listed above to insure good immune function.
Use of tobacco or excessive amounts of alcohol, high glucose or cholesterol levels in the blood, excessive sugar consumption and allergies have all been shown to significantly weaken the immune system. Therefore, these should be properly managed to optimize immune function.
What to do once a cold is caught
If your efforts at prevention fail and you catch a cold, there are many things you can do to speed your recovery. With a healthy, functioning immune system, a cold should not last more than several days. However, once a cold has taken hold, it is difficult to throw it off completely after only a few days. Do not expect immediate symptomatic results when using natural substances, as most of these assist the the body in overcoming the illness as opposed to suppressing the symptoms; in fact, your symptoms may temporarily worsen, though the course of the illness is generally much shorter.
Sleep & Rest: "A cold is your body's way of telling you to take a break." We think of colds as being minor illnesses and often try to ignore them and go on about our daily routines; this often drags out the symptoms and prolongs the illness. The importance of adequate sleep and rest cannot be overemphasized; often a day or two of bed rest can greatly shorten the severity and duration of a cold. Numerous studies have shown that potent immune activators are released and many immune functions are greatly increased during deep sleep.
Liquids: Dehydration of the respiratory tract has been shown to produce a much more hospitable environment to viruses than a moist environment. Drinking plenty of liquids helps prevent this dehydration and also improves white blood cell (WBC) function. The type of liquid you drink is important; concentrated sugars such as soft drinks or fruit juices greatly reduces the ability of the WBCs to kill bacteria and viruses.
Nutrition: Vitamin C is the most commonly mentioned vitamin in helping prevent or treat the common cold. It has been shown to be antibacterial and antiviral, though its main effect appears to be improvement in host resistance by stimulating WBCs, increasing interferon levels and antibody response, to name a few. I typically recommend 500-1000 mg every two hours for adults during a cold.
Zinc is important. A recent double-blind clinical trial showed that using zinc lozenges in the early stages of a cold decreased its average duration by seven days. 86% of the zinc-treated patients were completely over their colds within seven days.
I have personally found that soups are excellent foods to emphasize during a cold, especially chinese hot and sour soup. Soups provide water, are easily digested, are high in nutrients, and hot and sour soup in particular makes you sweat. (Be sure to avoid cold drafts after eating this soup). Chicken soup has also been shown to be an effective cold remedy. It contains cysteine, an amino acid which thins the mucus in the lungs, and has been shown in studies to increase air flow through the respiratory passages. Adding garlic, onions, red pepper or hot spices to your chicken soup adds to its effectiveness.
Herbs: Many herbs are useful in treating colds, usually due to their immune enhancing effects. In Chinese Medicine, a formula called Yin Chao is often used to prevent and treat colds. If used early enough, it is often successful in stopping the cold in its early stages.
In western herbal medicine, echinacea, goldenseal, and licorice are a few of the most commonly used herbs. These are all potent herbal enhancers of immune function, and when used properly, often shorten the length and severity of the average cold. These are also available in a variety of combinations at your local health food store.
Be sure to use herbs wisely and according to directions. Though these herbs are appropriate for short-term administration, long term use may decrease their effectiveness and may even cause health problems in some people.
Finally, if your cold symptoms are particularly severe, long-lasting, or produce unusual symptoms such as extreme fatigue, painful cough, etc, be sure to contact your health care provider for an examination and appropriate treatment. Self care can be effective for most colds, but occasionally in complicated cases professional care is necessary.