- There are 5 simple things you can do to prevent or treat seasonal cold and flu symptoms.
- None are “miracle” cures, infectious disease expert Dr. William Schaffner said, but they can help.
- Zinc lozenges may help prevent infection, while mild exercise can ease congestion if you’re already ill.
With flu, RSV, COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses all surging this Thanksgiving, “nobody wants to be a dreaded spreader,” Dr. William Schaffner said.
Schaffner, a professor of preventative medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, told Insider while “we no longer hang garlic around our necks” to prevent from getting sick, there are a few simple, more useful things you can try to help prevent or shorten seasonal illnesses.
Here are his favorite science-backed recommendations.
If you’re not sick yet, vaccines developed for flu and COVID protect you against several strains of virus
The most straightforward thing you can do to help yourself stay healthy this season is to get vaccinated with a flu shot and a COVID booster. This year’s flu vaccine protects against four types of flu, so even if you’ve already had the flu once this year, it can still combat a repeat infection.
“Influenza has started early and very vigorously over much of the country,” Schaffner said. Already, his home state of Tennessee is seeing flu activity levels so high the CDC is classing them as purple, a step beyond the red alert zone. “Certainly, you don’t want to bring flu to the Thanksgiving table,” he said.
Similarly, new bivalent COVID-19 vaccines protect against two different versions of the coronavirus, including Omicron.
“COVID at the moment is steaming along,” Schaffner said. “It causes over 300 deaths in the United States every single day. So a lot of people wish it were forgotten, but I’m afraid it’s still there.”
Zinc ‘has the best data’ for colds, in both prevention and treatment
You can take zinc either as a preventative measure, or at the first signs of infection, to shorten your illness.
“Of all of the discussed medications, zinc has the best data,” Schaffner said. “It’s not a miracle drug, it’s not a suit of armor, but it is a little something that can help in prevention of the common cold.”
Zinc lozenges have been shown in numerous studies to shorten the duration of a cold by about a day or two, but “zinc is not for everyone because a lot of people don’t like the taste,” Schaffner said.
Zinc, an essential mineral our bodies need to function properly, is also plentiful in many protein-rich foods, including turkey, so you can probably get enough of it from eating a well-balanced diet.
If you’re going to take supplemental zinc, try something that will coat your throat, like hard lozenges or syrup, because nasal sprays can prompt loss of smell. If it’s prevention you’re after, Schaffner suggests taking your zinc the day before a family gathering.
As for everything else that’s available to ease symptoms in the cough and cold section of the pharmacy, “some of them can offer some transient relief, but there’s no single one that’s so much better than the others that I would recommend it,” Schaffner said.
The antivirals Tamiflu and Paxlovid can ease a case of the flu or COVID
If you’re in a high-risk group, or are going to spend the holidays around someone who is, Schaffner recommends rapid testing everyone for COVID on the day of your gathering. Paxlovid has been shown to reduce the odds of hospitalization and death from COVID in older adults, though the jury is out on whether it does much of anything for people under the age of 65.
If you have a high fever, there are also rapid tests for the flu available at urgent care centers and doctor’s offices. If you test positive, the antiviral Tamiflu can ease symptoms and shorten the duration of your illness if taken in the first 48 hours you’re sick.
Warm showers, hydration, and mild exercise can also help
If you are already holed up at home with congestion and seasonal cold symptoms like a runny nose, Schaffner recommends three simple techniques to loosen up mucus and ease your suffering.
First, consume fluids like water, hot soup, or whatever else quenches your thirst, because “that helps keep your mucus membranes nice and moist,” clearing “crusted secretions” in your nose and throat, and keeping you hydrated. Staying well watered is critical when you’re sick. You may not realize how much fluid you’ve lost while sweating out a fever, blowing your nose constantly, and not necessarily eating or drinking normally.
Next, take a warm shower, Schaffner said. The moisture and heat help drain your sinuses, which offers some relief.
Finally, some form of mild exercise like a walk around the block can also ease congestion. It’s fine to hit the pavement as long as your cold symptoms are relatively mild, and above the neck.
Other common sense measures this holiday season still apply, like good handwashing, and avoiding people who are coughing and sneezing.
“Good luck with that if you’re going to parties and celebrations and stuff,” Schaffner said. “If you yourself become ill, please, refrain from going to that party, because you’ll only spread.”