Winterize Your Family Part 2


Winterize Your Family Part 2: Integrative, Evidence-Based Tips On How to Hasten Your Recovery from Winter Viruses

By Dr. Elizabeth Bird

In our first installment of Winterize your Family, we focused on ways to avoid getting sick in the first place. Nonetheless, viral illnesses happen in spite of our best efforts. According to some estimates, the average person spends about one year of their life in bed, sick with a cold. The financial toll is also steep, with some estimates of colds costing upwards of 40 billion dollars a year, between bottles of cough syrup and time missed at school and work.

There are some ways to minimize the impact of colds on ourselves, our families and our workplaces, and I’ve put together a list of FAQ’s that address how you can hasten your recovery from winter viruses.

Feed a cold and starve a fever?

No doubt you have heard this axiom or some variation on it. While it is possible that allowing the body to go into a brief starvation response can be therapeutic, particularly when dealing with bacterial illnesses, animal studies indicate that with viral illnesses, maintaining a steady level of blood glucose is important for healing. For our purposes, this means feeding a cold, with or without a fever. So if you have a cold, eat small, frequent amounts of healthy foods, even if you are not hungry.

What should I eat and drink when I am sick with a cold?

Sip on some broth: There is good evidence that chicken soup does help with upper airway congestion, more than other hot liquids or placebo. One of the original studies on the benefits of chicken soup came out of the University of Nebraska and they have a recipe for chicken noodle soup that I’ve attempted and is quite tasty:

Drink hot herbal tea with a splash of honey. You can safely offer chamomile tea with honey to children over the age of 1. Honey has been shown to be more effective than most over-the-counter cough and cold medicines you buy at the pharmacy and has none of the side effects. However, never give honey to children under the age of 1.

Eat some spicy foods: The capsaicin in chili peppers eases sinus congestion, has analgesic (pain-reducing), antiviral and antimicrobial properties.

Eat citrus fruits and squirt some lemon in your tea: the quercetin present in citrus has antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties. The vitamin C present in citrus aids in quercetin’s absorption and while the role of vitamin c in viral illness is not clear, it is a potent antioxidant and it certainly won’t hurt.

Should I exercise while sick?

I think the answer to this really depends on how sick you are and whether you already exercise regularly. If you just have symptoms above the neck: sneezing, stuffy nose and no fever, then doing a mild/moderate version of your usual work out might help both boost your immune system and clear your sinuses. Significant endurance training can actually suppress your immune system temporarily and is best avoided while ill. If you have symptoms below the neck: significant cough, feel achy all over or have a fever, it is best to avoid exercise altogether.

Does getting chilled make you sick?

Turns out moms and grandmothers across the globe are right. Getting chilled doesn’t directly cause viruses, but it has been shown to lower our immune response. Put your hats, gloves and scarves to use and bundle up.

How do I know if I have the flu?

People with influenza usually are sicker than those with the common cold, the former having more fever, chills, headaches, body aches and generalized misery. The common cold can cause a fever, and plenty of misery, however. If you think you might have the flu, you can have a conversation with your doctor about possible testing and antiviral treatment, which is recommended in certain circumstances.

What should I do about a fever?

In general, I like to stay away from fever reducers (like acetaminophen and ibuprofen). Fevers are your immune system’s way of fighting virus and there is evidence that the use of fever reducers might lead to prolonged viral shedding; ie prolonged periods of being contagious and feeling lousy. However, sometimes it is prudent and necessary to treat a fever, particularly in children who are so miserable they refuse to drink to stay hydrated. Fevers lasting more than 48hrs or in children under 6 months of age should always warrant a discussion with your doctor.

What remedies do you use in yourself and your kids?

There is a dizzying array of products purported to treat upper respiratory viruses and the following is not a comprehensive review of everything out there. The following is my list of remedies, curated over 16 years of medical practice and 13 years of motherhood. In addition to cueing up the hot tea, chicken soup, and spicy Thai take-out, I use the following remedies in my household when anyone starts sniffling:

1. Xlear nasal spray: I mentioned this in my first article as a good preventive measure. Turns out it can also be helpful for reducing the incidence of ear infections and sinus infections that sometimes complicate winter viruses. There is some research demonstrating that the xylitol in the spray may make it more effective than just nasal saline irrigation alone. It is safe for use in children. Personally, I find it soothes my nasal passages when I get sniffly.

2. The Vitamin D3 “Hammer”: I learned about this from a Canadian family practitioner who published his use of high dose vitamin D for viral illness in 2015. The vitamin D3 hammer is a one-time dose of 50,000 IU Vitamin D3 taken at the first sign of illness or 20,000-30,000 IU daily for 2-3 days. The dose is weight-based and would be much smaller if you are kid-sized. I will say that the evidence for the vitamin D hammer is really anecdotal and in need of further study for us to be able to say conclusively that it works. I include it in my personal list of remedies because in my experience, the results are dramatic and I believe there is really little downside, if done correctly. There is ample evidence that a one-time, high dose of vitamin D is perfectly safe. However, if taken over time, high dose Vitamin D can cause problems.

3. Zinc: There are a lot of conflicting studies on zinc, but a large review in 2013 found that it can reduce the severity of viral illnesses. I like to take it in lozenge form, as the absorption directly from your mouth might contribute to its efficacy. In adults, the dose is between 40-75mg daily for a few days, begun at the first sign of illness. Again, zinc doses are weight based for kids and I don’t recommend lozenges for young children.

4. Elderberry syrup: 100mg twice daily while ill, less if you are kid-sized. There is ample evidence that elderberry syrup shortens the duration of colds and there is very little potential downside to its use, aside from cost.

5. Fire up the humidifier: our tundra-like heated homes can be especially hostile to our airways. Humidified air keeps the little cells that line our airways and sinuses happy and able to beat back infections.

I also use colds as an opportunity to hit the reset button and actually rest, whenever possible. Getting ill is as good an excuse as any to pause our frenetic lifestyles, and it is often a sign that a break is necessary.

I will be hosting a talk that is free to the public at the Chester public library on Dec 15th at 11 am when I will go over my recommendations in more detail. I hope to see you there! In the meantime feel free to visit my website:

As a disclaimer I will say that reading e-list articles is certainly no substitute for consulting with a medical professional; this article is intended for educational purposes only.

Read Winterizing Your Family: Integrative, Evidence-Based Tips To Stay Healthy During Cold and Flu Season Part I