Getting Defensive at Work

Common sense can help you steer clear of the dreaded office cold.

By Lisa James

October 2008

You’ve been grinding for the past week on two big presentations due pretty much yesterday (to say nothing of the latest quarterly report). So the whole crew’s pulling yet another late-nighter when you hear a sound that makes you cringe: Repeated sneezing and coughing from the guy two cubicles down. Three days later, you wake up with a scratchy throat and a stuffy nose.

Just what you needed, isn’t it?

It’s true that young children, with their immature, vulnerable immune systems, are the most frequent victims—and vectors—of colds and other upper respiratory infections. However, any time people are in close contact with each other there’s a potential for the spread of infectious disease; for most adults that point of contact is the workplace. Colds can’t always be avoided, but there are ways to lower your risk and to ease symptoms if you do wind up on the sick list.

Sneezing in Stereo

For a nuisance-level ailment, the common cold packs an economic wallop: The two to four colds caught by the average adult each year account for 110 million doctor visits and $17 billion in medical costs. Colds also extract a high price from the American workplace. A University of Michigan study estimates that 70 million workdays are missed each year by employees who are sick themselves, with an additional 126 million days taken by parents of sick children (Archives of Internal Medicine 2/24/03).

The cold’s misery-making partner, influenza, is more formidable, with possible complications that include pneumonia and even death. “It’s important that people do not underestimate the impact of flu,” says Yale’s Mark Russi, MD, MPH, former chair of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine’s Committee on Infectious Diseases. Colds are more likely to produce a stuffy nose; the flu causes extreme fatigue, fever and “total, severe body aches that make you feel like a Mack truck ran over you,” says Wendy Arthur, MD, director of Complementary and Holistic Health for Clayton College of Natural Health in Birmingham, Alabama. Arthur says that upper respiratory symptoms accompanied by severe headache and neck stiffness, or by shortness of breath and visual problems, should prompt a visit to your healthcare practitioner pronto.

Giving Prevention a Hand

The best way to avoid catching cold is simple: “Hand-washing, hand-washing, hand-washing,” as Arthur puts it. “Make sure people don’t share the same glass, and that water fountains are cleaned frequently or that cups are provided.” Russi adds, “Keep your hands from your nose and eyes, and cover your cough.”

Good hygiene practices are most effective when supported by a healthy lifestyle. Arthur’s first suggestion? “Not watching the news—five minutes of violence reduces your immunity for three to five hours,” she says. She also suggests both music and deep-breathing exercises to boost the immune system, along with “eating healthy foods—we should all be striving for seven to nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day.” Produce provides not just vitamins but also bio­flavonoids, which is especially important in urban areas where air pollution increases free radical exposure.

For extra protection Arthur advises taking 500 milligrams of vitamin C two to four times a day; “it can help prevent colds by helping to support the immune system.” She recommends the herbs rhodiola and ashwaganda for improved immunity. Another herb called andrographis has been found to help the immune system fend off the flu, while a fiber known as arabinogalactan helps bolster the activity of natural killer (NK) cells, immune-system components that go after microbes. Olive leaf extract is known for its antiviral properties.

If you fall ill despite taking precautions, both Russi and Arthur are adamant: Stay home. “A lot of us try to take a stoic attitude and congratulate ourselves for showing up at work with a cold,” Russi says. “You may actually cause more absenteeism if you go to work.”

Nothing will make a virus vanish once it gets a grip on your respiratory tract, but there are ways to help relieve symptoms. Arthur uses vitamin C for colds. In addition, high-quality echinacea preparations have been found to reduce a cold’s duration (Lancet Infectious Diseases 7/07).

The gentle remedies used in homeopathy may also provide cold and flu relief. Argentium metallicum (homeopathic silver), available in liquid, lozenge and spray forms, is often used to ease such symptoms as nasal congestion, sore throat, headache, cough, chills and body aches. Oscillococcinum is another option for flu.

So wash your hands when the cold bug hits your workplace. And if you do fall ill, use natural therapies to help get back on track.

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