Cold and Flu and Sneezes, Oh My!


Fall is often the start of the cold and flu season. When is a sneeze the beginning of a cold—or the harbinger of influenza—and when is it just a sneeze? Only a bit of time will tell, but you can be sure that a sneeze means there is something in your nose that needs to come out.

As we head into the cold and flu season we start to watch every little sneeze—ours, our children’s, and those spraying from the person next to us at the store. A cold comes on slowly and may make you miserable. It doesn’t hit hard, fast, and hot like influenza. Influenza hits like a Mack truck, causing whole body aches, high fevers, and bringing the risk of deadly complications to both young and old.

Staying inside for the winter to avoid crowds and public places might prevent exposure to colds and flu. Or you could get a flu shot to lessen the chances of getting that dreaded virus. But surely there are some natural measures we can take to work with Mother Nature, supporting our body’s immune system during the cold and flu season. Of course there are!

Both influenza and cold viruses are spread through respiratory droplets that enter our nose, spread by hands and coughs and sneezes from infected people. These droplets are propelled through the air several feet and deposited on the mouth, hands, or nose of those nearby. The droplets also land on surfaces in public places and can survive anywhere from a few seconds up to 48 hours, so it is possible to be exposed by touching a counter that was sneezed on earlier in the day.

Think of your nose as the body’s filter: a filter that should be cleaned regularly. The nose is made to protect us from the air we breathe. Tiny hairs capture pollen, dust, viruses, and other particles that would be harmful if allowed into the lungs. Mucus coats the trapped particles and eventually the nose has to expel the buildup of mucus. We all know what that feels like! We also know that a clogged filter can’t do a good job.

A minimal load of viral particles are necessary to actually make us sick, so it makes sense to wash the nose regularly to prevent a viral buildup. This gives our immune system time to raise an attack against the few viruses that do manage to enter, and keeps colds so minor as to be virtually undetectable. Many patients who wash their nose once or twice each day—usually when brushing their teeth—report rarely getting sick with colds any more. Those who feel a cold coming on can wash their nose more frequently and find symptoms disappear quickly.

This benefit has been proven in several well-designed studies. In the fall of 2002, Dr. Ravizza of Pennsylvania State University presented his findings to the 50th Scientific Assembly of the American Academy of Family Physicians. In this study, 294 college students were divided into three subgroups. One subgroup performed daily nasal irrigation, one took a daily placebo pill, and the third group was left untreated. All participants were asked to keep a cold symptoms diary. On average, those engaging in nasal irrigation had fewer colds over the study period, compared with the placebo or untreated groups.

What does it take to clean the nose? Some people think that sniffing water during their daily shower is adequate. But that is like washing your car without using soap or even rinsing it off. Others use saline sprays to cleanse the nasal passages, but how well does a little spritzing really clean anything? No—for the best results, you need a good solution that cuts through the mucus and a good flow that really removes all those viruses and other irritants caught up in the air we breathe.

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In all my years of caring for patients, I’ve found the best way to protect the nose is to use a modern nasal wash system. Well designed, safe bottles that allow you to control the flow and pressure make washing a pleasure. Solutions made with pharmaceutical-grade salt, buffered with just the right amount of sodium bicarbonate make the wash a refreshing experience. Hypertonic (saltier than the body) solution acts as a natural decongestant to keep the airways open and the sinuses draining. Hypertonic saline also kills germs. All this is so much better than snorting or spraying!

Even babies as young as six months can have their noses washed: by the time they are two they can be doing it themselves. In my pediatric practice I have seen little tykes take to nose washing like … well, like ducks take to water. They’d much rather wash their noses than be approached with an endless chain of tissues, or worse yet, the dreaded big blue bulb!

As one of my patients said, “In my opinion, preventing colds—and a variety of other sicknesses as well—is as simple as good hygiene. We all know that washing our hands is important, but I noticed a big difference when I took the next step: washing my nose. We breathe in thousands of gallons of air every day, along with dirt, irritating chemicals, germs, viruses, and whatever else the air bears. Once I got in the habit of washing my nose out with warm saline once a day, and saw all the icky stuff that washing brought out, I hate to miss even a single day.”

So by all means, cover your mouth when you cough and wash your hands frequently. But if you really want to do all you can to prevent cold and flu, wash your nose regularly with a good nasal wash system. Wash away the viruses, kill the germs, and breathe better. Your family, your friends, and most importantly, your nose will thank you for it.

By Hana R. Solomon, MD //

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