Fall is here and winter is right around the corner. This means football, pumpkins, hot cocoa and the holiday season. Unfortunately with the weather turning cold and rainy this also means the spread of respiratory infections is going to rise. It is time to bundle up to stay warm and healthy. It is important to take extra care of ourselves in order to give our immune system the best chance of defending us from coming down with one of the nasty bugs inevitably going around.
Most respiratory infections are caused by viruses including the common cold and the flu. The common cold, aka rhinopharyngitis, is an upper respiratory infection (URI) caused by any one of many different viruses. It causes symptoms such as runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, sore throat, sometimes a cough and no or low fever. It typically lasts 3-14 days. The flu is caused specifically by influenza viruses and although it also affects the upper respiratory tract it causes body-wide symptoms as well. People with the flu usually experience fever, fatigue, chills, body aches, headache and nausea along with congestion and cough. The flu typically lasts 1-2 weeks with the worst symptoms only lasting a few days. Every year the specific flu strain and severity varies. Generally, the flu season starts in October or November and lasts until Spring.
Besides those classic infections of “cold and flu” season there is also strep pharyngitis, sinusitis, bronchiolitis, croup, pertussis aka whooping cough, bronchitis, and pneumonia. Children in particular are most at risk of bronchiolitis, croup and pertussis. Those under 2 years old are at increased risk of respiratory distress from these airway infections. Strep pharyngitis and pertussis are caused by bacteria. Pneumonia, which is an infection of the air sacs in the lungs, can be viral, bacterial or fungal. It can be especially dangerous for the young and elderly. Any time symptoms include a high fever, wheezing or difficulty breathing, chest discomfort or coughing up blood it is imperative to seek urgent medical attention. Also if your symptoms are not improving after 2 weeks or if you are unsure about your condition it is a good idea to get checked out by a doctor.
The standard recommendations to prevent getting sick of frequent hand washing and avoiding close contact with ill individuals are always relevant, but there is so much more you can do to support your body’s ability to fight off infection. First off, make sure to get enough sleep. During sleep the body does its repairs and the immune system is more active, so a lack of sleep weakens your body’s ability to self heal and clear germ exposures before it takes root in your system. Secondly, make sure to eat a diet high in vegetables and fruits to ensure you are getting all the nutrients your body needs to function. Foods high in vitamin C and other antioxidants like citrus, berries or spinach are great options. Foods high in zinc such as seafood and legumes are also good choices. Some foods like garlic, onions and ginger are naturally antimicrobial. Some spices like horseradish, rosemary and thyme not only support the immune system, but are specific to the respiratory tract. Green tea is a powerful antioxidant that can also help to open the airways, plus sipping tea can warm you up in the cold weather. Taking probiotics has been shown to reduce frequency of respiratory infections. There are also immune supporting vitamins and herbs such as vitamin C, vitamin A, zinc, vitamin E, vitamin D, elderberry, astragulus and mushroom extracts. Consult a doctor to know which ones and what dosing is best for you or your family.
If you do get sick make sure to rest. Pushing through the illness will usually result in symptoms lingering for longer. Steam inhalations and saline nasal sprays can help to clear mucus. The same vitamins and herbs listed above can also be helpful in clearing infections at different doses. Additionally, herbs like echinacea, licorice, yarrow and goldenseal have antimicrobial properties beneficial in treating infection. Other herbs such as English ivy or wild cherry can help with coughing. In cases where it is a bacterial infection then antibiotics may be indicated. There are a few prescription options for the flu, but all need to be started early to have benefit and typically only shorten symptoms by 1-2 days. Regardless of the type of infection the earlier you get treatment the better so schedule with your doctor to get a proper diagnosis and appropriate treatment options. Better yet boost your immune system naturally and stay healthy.
Dr. Jennalyn McBride is a Naturopathic Doctor at Northwest Center for Optimal Health in Marysville, WA. Contact her at 360-651-9355 or firstname.lastname@example.org.