Colds, Flu and Snake Oil

Cathy Arnst

It's that time of year when we and our kids are all snuffling, sneezing, and coughing, and thoughts turn to Vitamin C, echinacea, multivitamins, cough syrups and whatever else might keep us healthy. STOP NOW! Every year Americans throw away hundreds of millions of dollars on remedies they think might prevent or cure colds, and none of them--none of them--have been proven to work. Some of them, in fact, are little better than snake oil. Worst of all are most of the so-called "natural" supplements that we spend $21 billion a year on.

I just reviewed an excellent book on this subject, Natural Causes: Death Lies and Politics in America's Vitamin and Herbal Supplement Industry, by medical journalist Dan Hurley. The book details the many untested, unproven and often tragically unsafe supplements that we love to buy. If the book doesn't convince you,
check out the National Institutes of Health report on multivitamins released last May. Here's a quote from the scientist who chaired the committee investigating multivitamins:

“More than half of American adults are taking dietary supplements, the majority of which are multivitamins, and the bottom line is that we don’t know for sure that they’re benefiting from them. In fact, we’re concerned that some people may be getting too much of certain nutrients,” said J. Michael McGinnis, M.D., M.P.P., Senior Scholar with the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, who chaired the panel.

If you want some common sense tips on how to treat and avoid colds, from the National Institutes of Health, keep reading. And remember, young children get three to eight colds a year because their immune systems have not fully developed yet. In other words--it's normal. Don't freak out. And whatever you do, don't give your children or yourself antibiotics. They never, ever work on colds, because they are only effective against bacteria. Colds are caused by viruses.

Click on the American Lung Association for other myths and facts about cold and flu. The Nemours Foundation has some useful information for what to do when your child has a cold.

Here are five proven ways to reduce exposure to germs, from the National Institutes of Health:

Wash hands: Children and adults should wash hands at key moments -- after nose-wiping, after diapering or toileting, before eating, and before preparing food.
Use instant hand sanitizers: A little dab will kill 99.99% of germs without any water or towels. The products use alcohol to destroy germs. They are an antiseptic, not an antibiotic, so resistance can't develop.
Disinfect: Clean commonly touched surfaces (sink handles, sleeping mats) with an EPA-approved disinfectant.
Use paper towels instead of shared cloth towels.
Here are seven ways to support the immune system:

Avoid unnecessary antibiotics: The more people use antibiotics, the more likely they are to get sick with longer, more stubborn infections caused by more resistant organisms in the future.

Breastfeed: Breast milk is known to protect against respiratory tract infections, even years after breastfeeding is done. Kids who don't breastfeed average five times more ear infections.
Avoid second-hand smoke: Keep as far away from it as possible! It is responsible for many health problems, including millions of colds.
Get enough sleep: Late bedtimes and poor sleep leave people vulnerable.
Drink water: Your body needs fluids for the immune system to function properly.
Eat yogurt: The beneficial bacteria in some active yogurt cultures help prevent colds.
Take zinc: Children and adults who are zinc-deficient get more infections and stay sick longer.

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