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Boost the immune system to ward off colds, flu

by Doris Penner

Fall is a beautiful season in Manitoba, but it inevitably brings with it the threat of colds and influenza. Vulnerable citizens (seniors, children older than six months and healthcare workers) are encouraged to avail themselves of a vaccine to ward off illness.  Beyond that, what can the population do to weather the flu season? How can we mitigate the risks of contracting a cold or the ‘flu, and deal with the sniffles, fever and fatigue these conditions bring?

Both colds and flu are caused by any one of several hundred viruses that attack the respiratory system. While many of the symptoms—sore throat, coughing, runny nose and headaches—are the same, flu is more serious and often accompanied by fever and body aches. Typically, these conditions are transmitted when someone coughs or sneezes, releasing tiny aerosols that contain the virus. An individual either breathes in the aerosols or touches surfaces where they have landed, bringing them up to nose and mouth with their hands and so they enter the body.


Avoid crowds

One can immediately see several ways to lower risks of spreading flu and cold viruses. Avoiding people especially in crowds would go a long way to lower incidence of sickness, but children and teachers have to go to school, jobs demand interaction and clan gatherings are important so this is not realistic. Frequent handwashing with soap to inactivate the virus will reduce risk of infection, as will wiping surfaces with disinfectant—especially during sneeze and sniffle time. It is important as well for people to cover their mouths and noses with a tissue when coughing.

The most important way to lower risks of contracting an infectious disease is by a conscious effort to keep the body healthy and the immune system strong. This is achieved by a nutritious diet highlighting fruits and vegetables, low-fat protein (fish, eggs and lentils), fibre (whole grains) and low-fat milk products, as well as keeping fit and active. Foods that particularly boost the immune system are those high in antioxidants and B vitamins such as broccoli, grapefruit (or other citrus), spinach, sweet potatoes, almonds and wheat germ.

Unfortunately, one cannot completely prevent flu—and when it hits, it can’t be quickly cured with a dose of medicine. Antibiotics attack bacteria so are of no help with flu and colds while antihistamines may provide some relief (results are mixed). There are a few anti-viral medications your physician may prescribe, and certainly a cough may be mitigated by any number of cough syrups which ease the throat, and nasal drops and sprays combat stuffiness and congestion.


Natural remedies

Along the way folks have tried various natural remedies, some of which have proved effective. And while one can’t say for certain these will work for everyone—bodies are created differently—they are worth a try. Echinacea—sometimes called purple coneflower—is often used to treat the common cold. Proponents claim it stimulates the immune system and prevents and treats upper respiratory tract infections (it also treats urinary tract infections and enhances wound healing).

Studies suggest phenolic compounds in the plant work together to stimulate cells in the body whose primary function is to fight invading particles and organisms (well-designed controlled studies have been few as is the case with many herbal remedies). Echinacea is available is pill or tablet form and should be taken at the onset of viral symptoms and up to 48 hours after the symptoms disappear. Although the herb is basically safe to ingest, individuals with an autoimmune disease or asthma should not take it. As well, it is not a good idea to take echinacea as a preventative measure since it stimulates the immune system unnecessarily, depleting its capabilities.

Large doses of vitamin C are wasted as a cure for colds (although ingesting citrus every day will help strengthen the immune system), but elderberry syrup and oregano oil have been shown to boost the immune system and may work to shorten the duration of respiratory illnesses.

Overall, the best bit of advice for anyone suffering from the cold or flu might still be to drink lots of fluids, lap up hot chicken soup (both of which help relieve congestion), get plenty of bed rest and practice patience.


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