Most people should now be aware that antibiotics do not kill viruses and do not help you recover more quickly from a viral illness.
Despite this, in 2014 in Canada, there were 23 million prescriptions written for antibiotics, with the vast majority of these being for respiratory illnesses, which are commonly caused by viruses. This was at a cost of $786 million.
The common cold is caused by over 200 different viruses, with the main culprits being the rhinoviruses but also including coronavirus, adenovirus, echo virus and others. People usually catch a cold - not from going out without a sweater - but from touching a contaminated object for example the cart at the grocery store, or by shaking the hand of an infected person then touching their own eyes, nose or mouth. This is a good reason for not shaking hands during colds and flu season. I have often backed away from a patient who has just noisily blown their nose, then reached out with the same germ-ridden hand to shake mine.
Influenza, or the flu, is caused most often by influenza viruses A and B. It can be caught, unfortunately, if an infected person sneezes or coughs and the virus laden droplets land on your nose, mouth or eyes. It can also be caught by touching contaminated objects and then touching one’s face. The most common places the virus is found are on doorknobs, phones, TV remotes & hands. A very good reason to stay home from work if you have the flu! This is one case where it is OK not to share! The biggest difference between colds and the flu, is that the flu is characterized by sudden onset of high fevers, often severe headache and body aches. Both conditions share the sore throat and runny nose that contributes a lot to the patient’s misery.
A common misconception is that you can tell whether your cold/flu symptoms are viral or bacterial by how green your mucous is. This was perpetuated in the past by some doctors but has now been thoroughly disproven. So when you have a cold, fever, sore throat, body aches, nasal congestion and are coughing up thick green or yellow mucous, antibiotics are not indicated or supported by scientific evidence.
Another reason not to use antibiotics, in these situations, apart from the fact that they do not work, is that they can prolong the illness or even lead to more serious infections in your future. Life threatening allergic reactions are one of the more serious immediate risks of antibiotic use but other risks include diarrhea, digestive disturbances, yeast overgrowth and kidney damage. Frequent use of antibiotics is also linked to higher risk of developing non-Hodgkins lymphoma and breast cancer. Babies given antibiotics in the first year of life are more likely to develop asthma and allergies later on in life.
There are a few well proven and natural ways of enhancing one’s own natural immunity.
The first and most powerful, and frequently overlooked, is the importance of eating a whole food, plant based diet (WFPBD). Our modern “Standard American Diet” (SAD) is extremely low in hundreds of plant-based antioxidants and phytochemicals which are essential for good health. A high concentration of these beneficial substances is easily identified by the wonderful colours of black, blue, red, green and orange in natural foods and eating a broad variety of these helps ensure adequate intake.
Garlic and onions are immune enhancing foods. While they may not enhance your immune function quickly enough to make a difference once you become ill, eating this family of foods regularly is an easy and delicious way of enhancing your natural immunity.
Zinc is an essential mineral that plays an important role in immune function and many people have low stores. Zinc is needed for the development and functioning of white cells, so deficiency will lead to increased susceptibility to infection. Adequate intake of zinc can decrease the incidence of pneumonia and antibiotic use. It also helps prevent colds and decreases the duration of colds and flu by a day or more if one does get sick.
As is the case with many vitamins, supplementing with zinc (as opposed to getting it naturally through foods) can do more harm than good. Studies have shown that people taking as little as 15mg a day actually have worsened immune function. Ideally get your zinc from foods such as cashews, wild rice, edamame, mushrooms and broccoli, chickpeas, soy milk, kale, pine nuts, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds.
There are also some foods that interfere with the efficient functioning of the immune system. Fatty foods have been proven to decrease immune function and this includes both animal fats and the so-called healthy vegetable oils. Our white cells just do not work very well in an oil slick! Cholesterol also has adverse effects on immunity. To clarify the difference between fat and cholesterol - fat is the the gunky yellow stuff under the chicken skin or the white streaks of ‘marbling’ in a steak. Cholesterol exists as tiny particles inside the membrane surrounding each cell in an animal’s body, and is therefore present even in “lean” meat. All animal products contain cholesterol, no plant products do.
Exercise is another way to boost immunity, and increase both one’s lifespan and quality of life.
In one study of over 1000 men and women from 18 - 85, it was found that the frequency of colds in people who exercised five or more days a week was 46% less than in sedentary people (those who exercised only a day a week or less). Even when the frequent exercisers did get sick, the illness was less severe and the number of sick days was reduced by 40%.
So go for a walk every day and eat your veggies!