7 Tips to Ward off Colds This Winter — Naturally
Chase away colds and viruses this season by arming your kids - and yourself - with a natural arsenal to prevent or shorten illnesses.
The best defense is a great offense, and hand-washing with soap and warm water is still the most effective natural way to kill germs before they reach your system. Teach kids good hand-washing techniques (see cdc.gov/handwashing) and help them understand how germs spread.
"Also try to prevent kids, especially older kids, from touching their face, since this is how the virus is introduced into the system," says Dr. Michelle Bailey, director of medical education at Duke Integrative Medicine and a pediatric integrative medicine physician.
Experts say boosting the body's natural defenses to viruses is a good strategy for staying healthy. "A healthy immune system is really going to help prevent some of the colds and viruses in the winter months and shorten the duration of viruses to help kids bounce back sooner," Bailey says.
For everyday colds and viruses, try these natural, immunity-boosting tips.
1. Get your Yo on!
Bailey recommends a probiotic supplement that contains the friendly bacteria lactobacillus or bifidobacterium found in some yogurt.
"A lot more data these days shows that probiotics are generally safe and they can help support the immune system," Bailey says. Probiotics can be found in chewable form or caplets. Bailey says parents should always consult a physician before beginning any type of supplement.
If you choose natural yogurt rather than supplements, look for plain yogurt that is low in sugar content (less than 10 grams of sugar per serving) and that also contains active cultures of "good" bacteria. Adding fresh fruit keeps the sugar content low while making the yogurt more appetizing and antioxidant rich for children.
2. Say good night to cell phones.
Today's kids are plugged in, and some of them stay that way all night long by putting cell phones under pillows and watching TV or playing video games late into the night. Bailey says these habits keep children from a natural, restorative sleep cycle and suggests keeping electronics out of the bedroom and turning them off at least an hour before bedtime.
3. Push vitamin-rich foods.
Provide a healthy diet of lean protein, fruits and vegetables, and limit sugar (which is linked to inflammation).
"The more of the nutrients you can get from food the better off you will be," says Patricia Sheridan, a research assistant professor in the department of nutrition at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health.
The "sunshine vitamin," vitamin D, is under scrutiny these days. Bailey says about 75 percent of her pediatric patients have low vitamin D levels. Vitamin D is produced when the body is exposed to sunlight for 10-15 minutes three times a week. However, vitamin D levels in children may drop in the winter if children are not outside very often.
A study of schoolchildren in Mongolia (where the harsh climate keeps children indoors) published Sept. 1, 2012, in Pediatrics reveals that children who were given 300 International Units of vitamin D in fortified milk for three months during winter experienced half the amount of acute respiratory infections, compared to children given nonfortified milk.
The Institute of Medicine recently increased recommended daily intake of vitamin D to 600 IU a day for people younger than 70. Children who drink milk typically get enough vitamin D through regular daily food intake, since many foods, such as select types of orange juice and milk, are now vitamin-D fortified.
Vitamin C has long been touted as a benefit against colds, but the data on mega-dose supplements is mixed, as is the data for zinc and echinacea. The best approach is to eat a diet naturally rich in these vitamins.
4. Move it outside.
Being clustered indoors creates more opportunity for germs to spread between children, not to mention the fact that experts recommend children have 30-60 minutes of exercise each day. Bundle up children and send them outdoors to play and unwind.
5. Spice it up.
Garlic, mustard (turmeric), onions and pepper are nature's medicine to clear nasal passages, reduce inflammation and ramp up immunity. Grandma's chicken soup, filled with garlic and onions, was not far off the mark as a home remedy.
6. Sip some tea and honey.
Green tea has more antioxidants than other types of tea and boasts antiviral and antibacterial properties. Add honey and lemon to this ancient remedy for an extra dose of natural medicine. Honey will calm the throat, while lemon provides vitamin C as well as a flavor boost. (Note that honey is not safe for children younger than 1 year because it may cause botulism.)
7. Use a cool-mist humidifier.
Many cold viruses thrive in dry nasal passages, so keeping a cool-mist humidifier (out of reach) in a child's bedroom may reduce the chances of respiratory infections.
"A cool-mist humidifier can help with some symptoms like opening nasal passages and soothing the lungs," says Sheridan, whose pediatrician recommended a humidifier for her daughter.
Take the time to optimize your family's natural defenses this winter to give colds a quick one-two punch before they knock you out first.
Carol McGarrahan is a Triangle health writer and editor.
If you're considering vaccinating your child against the influenza virus, which can be deadly, experts recommend that children be at least 6 months or older. To find a vaccination site near you, visit flushot.healthmap.org and enter your ZIP code.