Michael Garko, Ph.D.
Host – Let’s Talk Nutrition
Cold and flu season is underway. Are you prepared or are you a sitting target waiting to be infected by either a cold or flu virus? In the United States, flu season typically begins around October and lasts until about March, while cold season begins a little earlier during late August, early September and lasts until March or April.
Definition of Cold & Flu
Cold and flu/Influenza are contagious respiratory illnesses caused by viruses infecting the sinuses, throat or lungs.
Statistics on Seasonal Cold & Flu
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that millions of Americans, on average 5% – 20% come down with the flu each year. More than 200,000 people are hospitalized from flu complications. Approximately 36,000 people die annually from flu (see CDC, 2006).
In terms of colds, the CDC estimates that people in the United States suffer one billion colds annually. The CDC also reports that 22 million school days are lost annually in the United States due to the common cold. Children average 6-10 colds a year, while adults average 2-4 colds annually. Children tend to catch a lot of colds because of their close contact with one another in daycare centers and schools. Women, especially those 20-30 years of age, also tend to catch more colds than men, most likely because of their closer contact with children (CDC, 2007a).
Causes of Cold & Flu
There are more than 200 different viruses causing the common cold and its symptoms. Flu and its symptoms are caused by influenza viruses of which there are three types, Type A, B or C.
Allergic diseases affecting the respiratory tract (i.e., nose or throat) and chronic stress can also increase the likelihood of becoming infected with cold and flu viruses. Some believe that enlarged tonsils or adenoids, exposure to cold weather or getting chilled or overheated increase the chances of getting a cold or flu. However, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) there is no evidence to support these beliefs (see NIAID, 2007).
Transmission of Cold & Flu
Cold and flu viruses can be spread from person-to-person when an infected person coughs or sneezes transmitting the virus into the air in the form of an infectious aerosol or large droplets loaded with germs, which then enter the body through the nose or mouth.
However, direct contact with infectious secretions through touching contaminated environmental surfaces such as telephones, door knobs, hand rails, table tops and clothing (i.e., fomites – inanimate objects or substances capable of transmitting infectious microbes from one person to another) and then putting your hands to your nose or mouth will transmit a cold or flu virus. The risk of getting a cold or flu increases when people find themselves in highly populated areas, such as in crowded living conditions and schools.
Differences Between the Common Cold & Flu
Since the common cold and flu are respiratory illnesses caused by viruses, they share a number of symptoms. Thus, it is sometimes difficult for people to determine whether they have a cold or flu.
Health Consequences & Complications
Typically, the flu is worse in its health impact on people than the common cold. It is worse in terms of the severity of symptoms and how it makes people feel. It is also worse in terms of its potential complications.
Generally speaking, the symptoms of the common cold are milder. Also, people with a cold are less likely to experience serious health consequences such dying, being hospitalized or suffering from dehydration, bacterial pneumonia, ear and sinus infections and a worsening of chronic medical conditions, such as congestive heart failure, asthma, or diabetes (see CDC, 2007c).
It is not uncommn for the flu “knocks people off their feet.” The most common flu symptoms include the following:
- Fever (usually high) & chills
- Fatigue/tiredness (often extreme)
- Coughing (dry cough)
- Sore throat
- Nasal congestion (i.e., runny or stuffy nose)
- Muscle aches & pains (frequently intense)
- Stomach symptoms (e.g., nausea, vomiting & diarrhea) can occur but tend to affect children more than adults (see CDC, 2007)
While it may not be as severe as the flu, the common cold can create a lot of discomfort for people and be quite distracting. Symptoms of the common cold usually begin 2 to 3 days after infection and often include:
- Muscle aches & fatigue (not usually as intense as when inflected by the flu & more characteristic of influenza)
- Loss of apetite
Best Defense Against Cold & Flu
There is no cure for the common cold or flu. Therefore, the best defense against contracting the common cold or flu is to practice prevention. A key way to prevent colds and flu is to keep the immune system in tip top, battle-ready condition. The immune system is the sentinel of the body. It protects the body against viral invasions so long as things are done to keep it vital, vigilant and virulent against cold and flu viruses, which are virulent themselves.
One of the primary strategies to create an effective immune system defense against cold and flu viruses is to avoid committing on a regular basis what I refer to as The Seven Deadly Health and Nutritional Sins. Collectively they reflect a poor diet and unhealthy lifestyle habits.
Eating a diet primarily constituted of (1) stripped-down, refined, high-glycemic carbohydrates in the form of processed white sugar, white flour & white rice, (2) saturated & trans fats, (3) sodium in excess, (4) stimulants (tobacco & coffee) and suppressants (alcohol) (5) surplus calories and leading a lifestyle characterized by frequent episodes of (6) stress & sleep deprivation, along with a (7) sedentary existence undermine the health and nutritional status of a person and promote inflammation and free-radicals, all of which compromise the immune system, thereby, increasing the likelihood that the sentinel of the body will be unable to combat either a cold or flu virus.
In contrast, eating a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fiber, nuts, seeds and legumes, along with adequate rest and regular exercise go a long way in keeping the immune system healthy. Although it focuses on cardiovascular health, it is recommended the reader visit www.letstalknutrition.com and read my December, 2006 issue of Healthful Hints to learn more about diet and lifestyle recommendations which will promote a healthy immune system.
It is recommended further that the reader refer to Phyllis A. Balch’s book, Prescription for Nutritional Healing, and read the sections on the common cold and influenza. She provides a host of dietary and nutritional supplement recommendations in conjunction with lifestyle recommendations to help prevent and treat colds and flu. Yet another recommendation if for the reader to examine Lorna Vanderhaeghe’s book, Healthy Immunity, to learn about the immune system, how it works and ways to keep it functioning at an optimal level, especially during cold and flu season. Finally, readers can view my segment on cold and flu featured on CBS’s Studio 10 by visiting www.letstalknutrition.com and clicking on the Studio 10 link.
The statistics on the prevalence of the common cold and flu indicate that millions of American will succumb to the viruses responsible for these two health issues. Yet, by keeping their immune system battle-ready, people can do much to combat the cold and flu season and reduce their chances of getting sick and suffering with the symptoms associated with the common cold and flu.
Balch, P.A. (2006). Prescription for nutritional healing (4th edition). New York: Avery.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (n.d.) Key facts about seasonal influenza (flu). Retrieved September 20, 2007a, from http://www.cdc.gov/flu/keyfacts.htm
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (n.d.) Influenza: The disease. Retrieved September 20, 2007b from http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/disease.htm
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (n.d.). Questions and answers: Cold versus flu. Retrieved September 20, 2007c, from http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/qa/coldflu.htm
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2006). Questions and answers: Seasonal influenza disease. Retrieved September 20, 2007 from http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/qa/disease.htm
Garko, Michael (2006, December). Cardiovascular health – Part VIII: Diet and nutrition as part of a personal prevention program to combat coronary heart disease. Healthful Hints. www.letstalknutrition.com.
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (n.d.). Common cold. Retrieved September 20, 2007 from http://www3.niaid.nih.gov/healthscience/healthtopics/colds/cause.htm
Vanderhaeghe, L. R. (2002). Healthy immunity. New York: Kensington Publishing Corp.