September 29th 2014
How to avoid winter illness woes
November 28th 2012
’Tis the season to be jolly, but also to catch a dreadful cold. Hilly Janes suggests stocking up on the following in case you come down with the lurgy this Christmas
Oh, the shame. A study this year by Harvard School of Public Health of five countries showed that Brits were the least likely to heed public health advice during the 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic. Coughs and sneezes spread diseases, don’t you know, and doing both into a tissue cuts the risk of being over generous with your germs. As kids are more likely to pick up colds and spread them around the family than adults because their immune systems are less developed, it’s a good idea to get any snotty little brats to use a hanky (and throw it in the bin afterwards).
I’m not suggesting you eat this either. The Harvard survey included hand washing and we don’t do it enough, even though it cuts the risk of infection from colds and flu as well as the dreaded winter vomiting bug (norovirus). A government scientific adviser I know always washes her hands after she’s been on public transport, because touching surfaces that other people have infected and then touching your eyes or mouth is an open invitation to the bugs. (So is picking your nose, but she doesn’t do that.) When the season to be sick kicks in, schools beg parents not to send their children if they have the highly contagious norovirus and may even close them down. When I was little we all had to wash our hands before dinner time. Mr Gove, are you reading this?
You may feel like drinking this if you have been trapped for a week in a house where everyone is throwing up and rushing to the loo, but we’d suggest you don’t. It would be far more advisable to use a bleach-based cleaner to zap the norovirus bug, and particularly to disinfect surfaces.
There’s not much difference between the analgesics paracetamol, ibuprofen and aspirin for relieving the aches and pains that come with colds and flu, as well as arthritis - which can get worse during cold, wet spells. Paracetamol (the main ingredient in children’s Calpol) is also good at reducing high temperatures, while ibuprofen and aspirin are more likely to upset sensitive tummies. Paying for branded versions like Nurofen is pretty pointless - they cost far more than the generic versions on sale in shops and you are just paying for the shiny packaging and fancy adverts. If your head is really thumping and you can barely move, then you can alternate two kinds of pain relief as long as you don’t exceed the recommended daily dose - for example a couple of ibuprofen followed by a couple of paracetamol two hours later.
The Common Cold Centre at Cardiff University recommends nasal sprays with the ingredients xylometazoline or oxymetazoline for helping to unblock stuffed up noses. Cold viruses cause inflammation and swelling of the veins in our noses, causing the blocked up feeling, but decongestants constrict them. They can be particularly helpful if being bunged up stops you from sleeping, but are not recommended for children under six.
This plant extract from the mint family doesn’t actually make you breathe more easily, but it stimulates the nervous system to create the feeling that you are. Try a few drops of an essential oil containing menthol on a cotton hanky, a pillow, or in a hot bath to help your little ones (and you) to feel clearer headed. When I was little we always had Vicks vapour rub to put on our chests at night when we had colds and coughs - remedies like this contain several oils which have a similar effect to menthol. One of my favourites is Olbas Oil which costs about £2-£3 pounds for a little bottle that lasts for ages. It can also be used as a rub to relax aching muscles. Menthol has mild analgesic (pain relieving) properties, too, which is why it is used in throat sweets.
Something ending in -caine
For something a little stronger, over the counter throat lozenges such as Dequacaine contain not only antiseptics to fight bacterial infection but also small amounts of Benzocaine, a local anaesthetic which numbs a burning throat for a while. Smart and soothing.
If you prefer ‘natural’ products then anything easy to swallow that soothes and coats your throat will help, such as honey, chocolate, a milky drink or ice cream. Any hot drink will help soothe a sore throat, as can spicy foods and hot soups, according to the Cardiff centre - so stock up on ginger and chilli. There is very little evidence to support the effectiveness of cough medicines, so try these soothers as an alternative, perhaps combined with pain relief if coughing hurts.
A strong coffee can perk you up if you are feeling sluggish - that’s why so many cold remedies contain caffeine.
Over the counter remedies often contain ascorbic acid, aka vitamin C (and are flavoured with lemon to enhance the effect). It’s an essential vitamin but whether it relieves colds - especially in the amounts in over the counter products - is contentious. Vitamin C tablets will end up down the loo as it is water-soluble. So why not benefit from all the other goodies in foods rich in vitamin C? Stock up on fruit and veg such as red and green peppers, oranges, kiwi, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes. The RDA (recommended daily amount) for adults is 40mg - contained in just half an average size orange.
Zinc and echinacea purpurea
The trace element zinc and the plant echinacea purpurea are thought to have immune-boosting properties. There’s a little bit of evidence to support the claims - but whether it’s enough to make it worth buying supplements is debatable. The evidence suggests you need to take zinc lozenges over several months, for example, for them to have any possible effect. To get zinc in your diet, try oysters which are super rich in the stuff - even tinned varieties - as well as other shellfish, meat, milk and dairy foods such as cheese, bread, and wheatgerm. The RDA is 5.5-9.5mg a day for men and 4-7mg a day for women.
Finally, be patient. Colds last on average about seven days and in a quarter of people up to two weeks. A cough can last two to three weeks. And the more you get them, the stronger your immune system will be.
Hilly’s hot and healthy soother
1. Peel and grate a small knob of ginger into a mug
2. Add the juice of a squeezed lemon
3. Top up with hot water and add honey to taste
4. Strain if you prefer and sip slowly. Good for washing down a couple of paracetamol, ibuprofen or aspirin.
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