Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired

April 8, 2014

Ernest Severn

How many bouts of the common cold have you had this season? The average for adults in this country is 2 to 4 occurrences per season, and it is 6 to 8 occurrences per season if you are a child. Since there is no cure or vaccination for the common cold the most important way to approach it is with prevention. Of course the season we are talking about is winter so let’s start with that.

True or False: You are more likely to get the common cold if you are exposed to moderately cold temperatures.

This is False! The reason the season is winter is not because of the temperature per se, but it is due to most of us spending more time indoors together and the resulting increased transmission of pathogens between us. This was the finding of a study published in the December 2002 issue of Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise[1]. In my experience there is a big spike in the common cold and similar illnesses around Thanksgiving and Christmas.

True or False: Lack of sleep makes us more likely to get sick.

This is true. You may be thinking, I knew that, but did you know that not enough sleep can make you 3 to 5 times more likely to get sick than those with adequate rest? This was the finding in a study done in 2009[2] and it clearly illustrates how dramatically sleep affects our immunity.

True or False: Frequent hand washing decreases the incidence of the common cold.

This is again true. How much does it help? In a study done with Navy servicemen in 2001, the incidence of the common cold decreased by 45% with frequent hand washing[3].

True or False: Gargling water three times a day can lower the chance of getting a cold.

This may surprise you, but this is also true and it was verified in a study done in 2005[4]. In this study the incidence of the common cold was decreased by 36% by simply gargling water. This practice is widely recommended in Japan. The protection from the common cold is even better (decreased by 60%) if you gargle salt water.

True or False: Moderate exercise helps prevent the common cold.

This is also true. A study done in 2011[5] showed that with regular exercise (almost daily) the incidence of the common cold was decreased by 25% to 50%.

True or False: AirborneTM, the common over the counter remedy marketed to prevent the common cold among other things, was sued by the Federal Trade Commission for false advertising.

This is actually true. The makers of AirborneTM settled out of court in 2008 and paid $23.3 million. An expert with the Center for Science in the Public Interest stated, “There’s no credible evidence that what’s in Airborne can prevent colds or protect you from a germy environment. Airborne is basically an overpriced, run-of-the-mill vitamin pill that’s been cleverly, but deceptively, marketed.”[6]

So here are some very simple things we can do to dramatically change our likelihood of getting the common cold. As is so commonly the case, our health in large part depends on our habits.

  1. December 2002 issue of Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.
  2. Cohen S, Doyle WJ, Alper CM, Janicki-Deverts D, Turner RB. Sleep habits and susceptibility to the common cold. Arch Intern Med. 2009 Jan 12; 169(1):62-7.
  3. Ryan MAK. Operation Stop Cough. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2001 Aug.
  4. Satomura K, Kitamura T, Kawamura T, Shimbo T, Watanabe M, Kamei M, Takano Y, Tamakoshi A. Prevention of upper respiratory tract infections by gargling: a randomized trial. Am J Prev Med. 2005 Nov; 29(4):302-7.
  5. Nieman DC. Moderate Exercise Improves Immunity and Decreases Illness Rates. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine. 2011 Jul; vol. 5 no. 4 338-345.
  6. CSPI participates in class action against the makers of Airborne. Nutraceuticals World, 2008 Apr.