10 ways to fight winter blues

10 ways to fight winter blues

It’s cold season, and germ-phobics are preparing for battle. Germs are everywhere, from ATMs to escalator rails.

“Those places are just filthy," said Damon Schranz, medical director and assistant professor at the University of North Texas Health Science Center. “And there’s really no way to avoid them."

Mother’s advice to practise healthy habits is still the best way to dodge a cold. But short of becoming a recluse, there’s not a lot that can be done to boost immunity and prevent colds. “It’s just luck," Schranz said. “If you’re gonna get sick, you’re gonna get sick." Here’s what works, and what doesn’t.

Soap and water

Most colds are transmitted by shaking hands, but a 2006 survey found that only 34% of respondents washed their hands after coughing or sneezing. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are less effective than ordinary soap. Liquid dishwashing soap may be best of all. In one study, dishwashing soap was up to 100 times more effective than the antibacterial variety.

Bottom line:If you are doing nothing else, do this.


Long used in Europe, probiotic dairy drinks have hit the US market with promising results. Probiotics, which help stimulate immune cells and reduce inflammation, are commonly used to treat gastrointestinal problems. A 2001 study in the British Medical Journal found that probiotics also appeared to decrease the severity of colds. Children who drank lactobacillus milk had 17% fewer complicated respiratory infections than those who didn’t.

Bottom line: There’s growing evidence to suggest probiotics can reduce respiratory symptoms and boost immunity. But a cup of plain yogurt does the trick just as well as the drink.


It has to be in moderation. Researchers found that marathon runners were six times more likely to get colds than those who skipped the race. But 30 minutes of brisk walking most days can pay off.

A study concluded that women who walked 45 minutes five days a week suffered half as many sick days for colds as couch potatoes did. Walking appears to increase immune cells in the bloodstream, leading researchers to theorize that regular exercise can fight off germs. Another study found that active people had 25% fewer colds than others.

Bottom line: Exercise has lots of benefits, but don't wait until the sniffles start to hit the treadmill.

Fruit and vegetables

Carrots, pumpkin, squash, spinach and broccoli are packed with immune-boosting carotenoids. Dried fruits such as raisins and blueberries may also be helpful. Avoid processed foods, sugary treats and polyunsaturated vegetable oil.

Bottom line: This is a good practice year-round.


A 2005 National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine study found no evidence that echinacea (also known as purple coneflower) prevents colds. A 2003 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed it had little effect on upper respiratory infections in children. But plenty of people swear by it. It is said to increase the number of infection-fighting white blood cells.

Bottom line: Use with caution and stop use before surgery.

Avoid germs

Anything a sick person touches can get infested with germs, including money, mail, ATM keypads, credit cards, pens, shopping cart handles, doorknobs, telephones, elevator buttons, public computers and handrails.

Bottom line: Take no chances. Use your own pen when signing receipts and such. Use it again to punch numbers on the ATM. But don't get obsessive. Stressing out can weaken immunity.

Vitamin C

Ever since the 1970s when Nobel laureate Linus Pauling claimed that taking 1,000mg of vitamin C daily would reduce colds by 45%, people have grabbing a bottle after their first sneeze.

Doctors say there’s no evidence that vitamin C can prevent a cold, and they have decades of research to support that. Extra C may reduce the duration and severity of a cold, but not significantly.

Bottom line: Since this is a water-soluble vitamin, it is tough to overdose, but doctors say that anything more than 500mg at one time gets washed out of your system. A most advisable strategy is to get vitamin C from oranges, tomatoes and other natural sources.

Green tea

Green tea’s claim to fame is its antioxidants, which may help boost the immune system. People drink green tea to fight ageing, arthritis, Alzheimer's, cancer and many other conditions. But can it prevent the common cold? A 2007 study found the ingredients in green tea can enhance the body’s immune system by 28%. The antioxidants in green tea are said to be 100 times more effective than vitamin C.

Bottom line: It may not prevent a cold, but it does have other health benefits and it tastes good.


A number of studies have found zinc nasal sprays can cut cold symptoms by a couple of days.

But other studies have shown it does nothing to ease the misery of a cold or prevent the sniffles.

Too much (50mg or more) can deaden taste buds and interfere with the body’s absorption of copper, a vital mineral for immune function.

Bottom line: Skip the supplement or limit it to the recommended dietary allowance: 11mg for men and 8mg for women.


Research links chronic sleep deprivation to high blood pressure, heart disease and a number of other health problems. When people do not get enough sleep, the body’s T lymphocytes, which help destroy infections, don’t work as well.

Bottom line: Even if extra sleep doesn’t boost immunity, it certainly makes people feel better.

©2007/ The New York Times

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