Scientific Cold Prevention

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I was looking forward to giving a fun talk about the evils of alcohol. I had fashioned all these cool slides of booze bottles and fatty livers. Then I woke up. My head felt like a squishy melon, and someone had obviously climbed down my throat while wearing cleats.  I had to make an embarrassing phone call to cancel the talk, or find some other mysterious solution.

As I dialed the phone, I wondered what I could have done to avoid a cold.  I realize that there are some workaholic nuts out there who really look down on those who miss a day at the job because of illness. I look forward to sneezing on them every chance I get.  But it’s worth avoiding sickness if only to take all your paid sick days and spend them sticking it to the man.

As the phone rang, I did a quick review of the literature. Here are a few favorite strategies for cold prevention that go a bit beyond the usual suspects:

The Neti Pot

The Neti Pot in action.

The Neti Pot.

I didn’t expect data on this oddball practice, but it has empirical support. Everyone’s favorite version of medical water boarding includes taking a little teapot-shaped gizmo, then filling it with warm water and a little salt (a quarter teaspoon or so). Then with an elegant tip of the head, pour that solution in one nostril so it spills out the other. Daily use keeps sinus symptoms to a minimum.

Of course, you have to use distilled, boiled, or sterile water; otherwise, the brain-eating amoebas will get you.

After the last ring of the phone I had the chance to leave a message that would cancel the talk, but I hung up as I got another idea…


If you’re not eager to pour saltwater up your nose, perhaps a little on your throat.  Everybody knows that gargling can relieve a sore throat, but data for preventing colds with gargling are new. Three times a day of the standard gargle cut the probability of getting a cold by 40% or so. When garglers ended up with a cold despite their efforts, their symptoms were less severe, too.

Gargling helped me, but I could tell there was no way I was going to be a very entertaining speaker. Plus, I might infect everyone else. I called a trusty graduate student instead of cancelling, though. She was happy to give the talk for me, which allowed me to use one of my favorite interventions for just about anything…


PHOTO: Aaron Jacobs


Abe Lincoln allegedly said, “If I had 72 millennia to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first 71 sharpening my ax.” The durations vary in different versions of this quotation, but the big idea remains the same. Sleep is sharpening your ax, and it’s time well spent.  Slumber’s link to colds comes from one of the best experiments on this topic, because the researchers actually blasted cold germs right up people’s noses. None of this waiting around for folks to get sick.

Sure enough, those who slept less than 7 hours a night for the previous couple of weeks were 3x as likely to succumb to the blasted germs than those who slept 8 or more. The quality of the sleep was also important; those who thrashed around at night were also more likely to awaken with sniffles.

Keys to a good night’s rest include: using the bed only for sleep and sex (no TV, emailing, or neurosurgery), arising at the same time each morning after hitting the hay at the same time each night (no weekends filled with late nights and sleeping in),  and avoiding caffeine in the afternoon (even if it has a number 5 in its name). Some readers of Ladybud might think of another way to sleep well, too.

When I woke up, I thumbed through the rest of the published literature on colds. Unfortunately, most everything else had mixed evidence at best. I really wanted Echinacea to work, in part because it activates the CB2 receptor, but results are conflicting. Like other favorite plants, there’s probably a good strain and dose that works wonders, but we can’t pinpoint it. Exercise probably helps, but only if it’s not too intense. Researchers have examined vitamins A through E, but unless you’re completely deficient, they don’t seem to have a huge impact on colds. Probiotics seem to have potential, but we’re still in the dark about strains and dosages. Hand washing gets the big thumbs up, but you’ve got to do it eleven times a day. So it’s neti pot, gargle, and snooze. You know, “Water, water everywhere and then take 40 winks.”