How to beat the cold

by BECKY MORRIS, Daily Mail

The sudden cold snap with snow, ice and freezing rain has left many of us trying to ward off ailments. Here is the definitive guide to keeping your family fit and healthy.

Why do we get ill more in cold weather?

Dr William Bird, an Oxfordshire GP, was recruited last year to answer this question, working alongside Meteorological Office statisticians and epidemiologists from Oxford University.

'The body takes between six and ten hours to acclimatise to a change in the environment of 5C or more,' he says.

'You may feel cold and start to shiver - this is the body using the muscles in an involuntary shudder to generate heat.

'But the shiver sends a message to the body that it's in shock. When we are in shock our bodily functions slow down - one of the first to suffer is the immune system.

'This leaves us vulnerable to the infections that a healthy person would normally fight off.'

Health tips for freezing days

Look after your heart: Hundreds of lives could be saved every winter if people with weak hearts paid more attention to weather forecasts. Heart attacks and strokes increase by 30 per cent when the temperature plunges by more than five degrees in 24 hours.

If you have heart problems, wrap up in warm clothes and keep your house at 21C. Hard physical exertion on very cold days is especially dangerous. Getting into a car that has been in freezing temperatures is as taxing on the coronary arteries as spending ten minutes in a deep freeze.

Protect your skin: Skin can dehydrate more quickly when the weather gets colder. As we move from heated homes and offices - where the windows are shut and the air recirculated - into the cold outside, the moisture that keeps the skin supple evaporates.

'Drink 11/2 litres of water a day and use an effective moisturiser. One containing aloe vera or glycerine, which induce moisture, applied at night can give your skin the best chance of rejuvenation.'

Chilblains: They are small, itchy, red swellings on the toes, becoming increasingly painful and swollen before drying, leaving cracks which can expose the foot to infection.

Get plenty of exercise, especially skipping, aerobics and dancing, which aid circulation in the legs and feet. Massage your feet every night with diluted essential oil of black pepper and wear bed socks.

Arthritis: Research has shown that the pressure inside a joint is changeable and cold weather can be a high pain factor.

Devil's claw, or Harpagophytum, is a herb found in the Kalahari desert, where the natives have long brewed it as a medicinal tea.

Vitamins and mineral supplements, especially vitamins C, D and silica, have been shown to strengthen collagen (connective tissue).

How to aviod colds and flu

While getting cold does not cause the infection, a drop in body temperature can weaken the immune system.

This, combined with being in enclosed spaces with poor ventilation, can mean the cold and flu virus is easily passed on. Here are some tried and tested tips for lessening the chances of catching flu or the all-too-common cold.

Walk to work: Commuting on trains or buses doubles your chances of catching a cold or flu, according to a survey of London commuters. It found 100 per cent of train passengers caught a cold, as did 87 per cent of bus and Tube passengers and 75 per cent of car drivers. But the figure dropped to 55 per cent of cyclists and 50 per cent of pedestrians.

Avoid crash dieting: We may all want to shed a few pounds after working our way through Christmas selection boxes, but a crash diet deficient in nourishment and nutrients is the quickest way to stress your body and deplete your immune system.

Hygiene: Wash your hands regularly and scrub under the nails, which is where the cold virus is most likely to lurk. If you shake hands with an infected person and then touch your eyes or nose, you may transfer the virus.

Avoid sweet foods: Limiting sugar and refined carbohydrates (such as white bread and other white flour products) gives our immune system the best chances of successfully fending off infectious agents.

Keep up the exercise: Studies have shown that people who do five 30-minute sessions of exercise a week have significantly less time off work with colds.

How to survive a cold or flu

If all else fails and you do fall ill, here are some suggestions on how to lessen your symptoms and make the illness less of an ordeal.

Try Zinc supplements: Zinc inhibits the virus responsible for the cold infections (rhinovirus) and is found in meat, peanuts and seafood (especially oysters).

Research published in 1984 found that sucking a zinc lozenge every two waking hours reduced the average duration of colds by seven days.

Take Vitamin C: This has several immune strengthening and anti-viral actions in the body. Most studies suggest that

1.5g to 4g of vitamin C taken in divided doses during the day at the first sign of a cold reduce the number of ill days by a third.

Try Echinacea: This herb has gained a reputation as a potent infection fighter. There are two main species of echinacea used therapeutically - purpurea and angustifolia.

Good Health columnist Dr John Briffa suggests his patients use a blend of both types of echinacea, such as Echinaid, which is available in health food stores.

Avoid milk and too much alcohol:

Milk feeds the mucus in the nose, so if you cut down on dairy products, you'll prevent too much mucus being produced.

Alcohol is believed to act as an anti-inflammatory agent on the mucus membranes.

Steaming can help: Inhaling steam for 15 minutes over a bowl of hot water, keeping your head under a towel, will help destroy germs in the nose and mouth, because the high temperatures kill off the viruses.

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