Keeping out the colds: Your best defense? Wash up and back away

ALEIGH, N.C. (MCT) — Robin Carver doesn’t want to nag, but she’d like you to wash your hands.

Right now.

“Hand washing and good overall respiratory etiquette,” said Carver, who’s in charge of keeping health care workers from spreading germs at WakeMed’s various health-care facilities in North Carolina. “That’s the best thing you can do, hands down.”

The best thing you can do, that is, to ward off that sniffly scourge of winter: the common cold.

The talk this season has been about the bird flu, about how to detect it and what should happen if it hits. But the odds of catching bird flu have been placed at a million to one (at least for Brits, according to The Times of London). A much more likely, if less serious, threat is the common cold.

According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, not only are American adults likely to catch a cold this year, but they will probably catch several. The typical American has two to four colds a year, slightly more if you’re a woman between 20 and 30, fewer if you’re an adult older than 60. Kids typically catch from six to 10 colds annually. (Which helps explain why 22 million school days are missed annually as a result of colds.)

A quick fact or two before we get back to trying to keep you from catching cold in the first place.

Though kids tend to catch more colds, they cycle through them more quickly. Adults, said the NIAID, a division of the National Institutes of Health, should expect the effects of a cold to linger a week or two.

We typically associate cold season with winter. In fact, according to the NIAID, cold season begins around Labor Day, intensifies during the winter months, then declines around the start of spring.

That’s not to suggest a direct link between cold, wet weather and catching a cold. The NIAID said the increase may have more to do with incidental factors: School brings large numbers of kids together, and people spend more time indoors in the winter, in closer proximity to folks who might be infected.

How close is too close?

“Three feet,” said Carver, of the distance you should keep between you and someone you suspect of harboring a cold virus. The NIAID suggested backing up to about six feet.

And colds may be common, as in widespread and ordinary, but they aren’t all caused by the same nasty bug.

“Quite a few viruses can cause the common cold,” Carver said. More than 200, according to the national Centers for Disease Control, and that is part of the reason there’s no cure for the common cold — it’s not just one virus that must be addressed. Plus, as Carver notes, “There’s not much treatment for viruses.”

Now, on to how you can keep one of these 200 cold viruses from taking up residence in your body.

At the top of Carver’s list, as well as just about everyone else’s who advises on the common cold, is to wash your hands. And not just a perfunctory pass under a tepid faucet.

“There’s a technique to hand washing,” said Carver. “Use soap and warm water — not hot, you don’t want to scorch yourself. Wash for 15 to 20 seconds” — or about the time it takes you to sing “Happy Birthday” twice.

Wait, there’s more. “When you turn off the water,” advised Carver, “turn it off with a paper towel.” (Because your hand was dirty when you first turned it on.)

If you can’t wash your hands immediately, a hand rub containing alcohol will do in a pinch. But make sure it has a minimum alcohol content of 62 percent. (Avoid antibacterial gels; they do battle against bacteria, colds are the result of a virus.)

And don’t view the hand rub as a substitute for hand washing.

“It’s great for the immediate kill,” said Carver. But only hand washing removes the “crud” that can harbor residual germs.

Keep in mind, again, the three- to six-foot “social distancing” rule. And there’s the matter of what you should avoid touching in the first place.

Among other things, be leery of doorknobs, pens (pack your own), telephones, water fountains, elevator buttons and escalator handrails.

Touch one and what should you do, Robin Carver?

Go wash your hands.

And if you catch a cold, the best bit of respiratory etiquette Carver can offer: Stay home. Get some rest.

“We certainly don’t want you coming to the hospital if you’re sick,” Carver said. To clarify, she added, “To visit, that is.”

Do remedies work?

The next best thing to a cure would be nipping a cold in the bud, at the onset, when you feel that first sniffle.

Actually, according to the NIAID, most colds begin with a sore throat. And when you feel that ominous tickle, a host of remedies are at the ready, all claiming to either arrest development of the virus or drastically reduce the amount of time it’s in your system. Airborne, Cold-Eeze, Zicam, Alpha CF and a slew of echinacea-based products have come along promising to drastically reduce the severity of your cold. Sales of echinacea products alone exceed $155 million annually, according to the NIAID.

Alas, said Valerie Barlow, director of pharmacy services for WakeMed in Cary, N.C., the effectiveness of such remedies is yet to be proved.

“Most of these are herbal, and you won’t find a lot of studies on them because the FDA doesn’t require approval,” said Barlow.

No Food and Drug Administration oversight means no studies have been done to determine the remedies’ effectiveness. Or at least not many. And studies that have been done often provide conflicting results.

For instance, a 2001 study by the Medical University of South Carolina found that zinc, in the form of a nasal gel (aka Zicam) had no effect on rhinovirus infections (the most common of the common cold viruses).

A study published in the 2000 Ear Nose and Throat Journal, on the other hand, found that of the subjects tested, those who took Zicam saw “resolution” of their symptoms in 2.3 days versus 9 days for non-Zicam users.

Determining the effectiveness of other preventives is even iffier. Alpha CF, for instance, is a homeopathic remedy that is less widely distributed. (Homeopathic remedies involve minute doses of a drug that in larger quantities produces symptoms in healthy people similar to the ailment itself.)

“We have no comment about Alpha CF,” said Laura Bequette, also with the WakeMed pharmacy, “as this is a homeopathic preparation and it is difficult to determine the exact ingredients.”

Thus, for now at least, your best bet once that first tickle hits is to stick with the classic treatments. Get plenty of rest and force fluids. Gargle with saltwater. Decongestants and cough suppressants can be helpful in relieving symptoms, though be aware of their possible side effects, advises the NIAID.

In the end though, WakeMed’s Carver reminds that the best defense against the common cold is to keep your distance from those who have one.

And if she were sitting next to you as you finish reading this paper, a paper that was handled by at least one set of hands before it reached you, you can bet she wouldn’t be shy about leaning over and advising:

Go wash your hands.