Successfully Preventing or Treating the Common Cold to Save Energy, Time & Money

(c) Copyright 2008 by Timothy Conway, PhD


A study published in 2002 in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine revealed the factual details connected with a problem well-known to the organizational worlds of businesses, non-profits and government agencies: the all-too-common cold is sapping our time, energy and dollars.

In "Productivity Losses Related to the Common Cold" (JOEM, vol. 44, no. 9, pp. 822-9, Sept. 2002), researchers Thomas J. Bramley PhD, Debra Lerner PhD, and Matthew Sarnes PharmD, conclude (as their article Abstract states): "Health-related productivity assessments typically focus on chronic conditions; however, acute conditions, particularly colds, have the potential to cause substantial health-related productivity losses because of their high prevalence in working-age groups. This article presents the findings of a study [showing that] each cold experienced by a working adult caused an average of 8.7 lost work hours (2.8 absenteeism hours; 5.9 hours of on-the-job loss), and 1.2 work hours were lost because of attending to children under the age of 13 who were suffering from colds. We conclude that the economic cost of lost productivity due to the common cold approaches $25 billion, of which $16.6 billion is attributed to on-the-job productivity loss, $8 billion is attributed to absenteeism, and $230 million is attributed to caregiver absenteeism."

These researchers found that nearly one-fifth of working adults experience at least one cold each year. The 20+ million annual missed workdays estimated from the survey data are probably just the tip of the iceberg, because the estimates include only colds that resulted in doctor-visits or restricted activity days. There may be some 70+ million lost work-days for working adults, due to colds, the researchers claim, when actual missed work time is combined with lost productivity. In addition, nearly twice that many lost workdays are incurred by employees who are caregivers for children suffering from colds.

Again, look at that hefty total estimated economic cost of lost productivity due to the common cold: nearly $25 billion. And likely some 70-120 million lost work-days.

A subsequent study the following year, looking at not just working adults but their school-age children, came from the University of Michigan Health System (published in the Feb 24, 2003 edition of Archives of Internal Medicine). The UMHS reported an overall cost to the U.S. economy of $40 billion each year--substantially more than other health conditions like asthma, heart failure and emphysema. "From a bottle of cough syrup to missed time at work and school, the price tag of catching a cold really adds up," said A. Mark Fendrick, M.D., lead author on the paper and co-director of the Consortium for Health Outcomes, Innovation, Cost Effectiveness Studies (CHOICES) at UMHS. Fendrick and his fellow researchers found nearly three-quarters of their survey-respondents reported suffering from a cold within the last year, with an average of 2.5 episodes. As further reported by Carrie Hagen for the UMHS Press Release (

"The study found that Americans spend $2.9 billion on over-the-counter drugs and another $400 million on prescription medicines for symptomatic relief. Additionally, more than $1.1 billion are spent annually on the estimated 41 million antibiotic prescriptions for cold sufferers, even though antibiotics have no effect on a viral illness. [This yields a total of $4.4 billion for both non-prescription and prescription drugs.]

"We found that the common cold leads to more than 100 million physician visits annually at a conservative cost estimate of $7.7 billion per year," Fendrick says. "More than one third of patients who saw a doctor received an antibiotic prescription. While these unnecessary costs are problematic, what is more concerning is how these treatment patterns contribute to the development of antibiotic resistance [loss of effectiveness], a significant public health concern."

The study reports that an estimated 189 million school days (an average of nearly 1 day per episode) are missed annually due to a cold. As a result, parents missed 126 million workdays in order to stay home to care for their child. When added to the workdays missed by employees suffering from a cold, the total economic impact of cold-related work-loss exceeds $20 billion.

"Because there is no cure for the common cold [--a matter for debate: see below] it gets far less attention than many less common conditions," Fendrick says. "An intervention that would effectively prevent or treat the cold would have a huge clinical and economic impact, far greater than for chronic diseases that we hear about on a regular basis."

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In light of these and other facts gleaned by such studies, we certainly do well to find ways to altogether prevent and better treat the occurrence of the common cold.

At the outset, we must be aware that the cold is different from the flu. The flu usually involves fevers, chills, diarrhea, and/or vomiting, and often is eliminated by the human body itself within 24 to 48 hours. While there are recurring flu-bugs that travel the world in mild to severe epidemics, it is notable that many flu-like conditions are actually due to food-born viruses, especially from eating tainted animal foods-- poultry, fish, meat, eggs and dairy-- which are all prone to contamination by e-coli, salmonella and other nasty pathogens. (So beware those potentially unhealthy animal-food items not just at home and in the restaurant, but especially sitting out unrefrigerated for hours at workplace banquets, picnics, potlucks, conference rooms or lounge-areas, or in one's lunchbag.) Such "food-poisoning" flu-like conditions, very hard to detect and more widespread than commonly thought, are estimated to cause millions of illness-incidents each year for average Americans who aren't very careful about what they eat.

The common colds we're addressing here involve respiratory problems, usually beginning with an initial sore throat, proceeding to the runny nose ("running like a faucet turned on"), next followed by clogged sinuses and then, if things get really bad, serious infections with thick, yellow-to-green colored or even bloody mucus of the sinus and/or bronchial areas.

One thing to remember, a concern noted by the UMHS researchers, is that if you are suffering from a viral (not bacterial) infection, antibiotics won't help a bit. And if taken too often, antibiotics can stop working effectively and/or actually impair your immune system and make you more prone to subsequent infections. Unfortunately, it usually takes a few days to get lab results determining whether a cold is caused by viral or bacterial agents, and by that point, it is hard to contain the cold's symptoms. It is also to be noted here that colds which may start out as virus-based may wind up being largely bacterial infections due to opportunistic takeover by bacterial pathogens.

The first point to address on the topic of dealing with colds is prevention.

And having spoken of pathogens-- viruses and bacteria-- we do well to remember the common wisdom to frequently (but not too frequently or obsessively) wash our hands, either with soap and water or one of the widely available hand sanitizers (made by Purell, et al., though these can be too drying to the skin if over-used), and to avoid touching our lips, nose or eyes with our hands after being in public places or wherever we have been handling commonly-used things like door-handles, shopping carts, wall-switches, pens, etc. And if you have an infectious cold, please be kind to others by going out into public and handling shared objects as little as possible, and, if you must do so, then wipe off objects after use with those sanitizing gels or anti-bacterial wet-wipes, so as not to spread germs to other persons.

Generally, all of us will suffer far less occurrence of colds if we keep our immune systems healthy. And we achieve this improved immune-function by getting sufficient sleep, healthy vegan food (see HowDoIGoVegan), frequent movement (which stimulates the lymphatic system), sufficient levels of safe but stimulating exercise, reducing our exposure to chemical toxins and allergens, and also by enjoying daily periods of meditation and/or restful ease along with "positive attitude" self-therapy to best antidote ourselves against stress and ennervation.

Now, in a "compromised immune-function era" like our own (with so many challenges to our health), if you feel like you or a loved one is susceptible to falling ill with a cold...

A great start is to practice the daily hyygiene of flushing out the mucus membranes of the sinus cavity and throat with a warm solution of water with a pinch of salt and baking soda, or just salt, if that alone is available, or even just water alone if neither salt nor baking soda is easily obtained (say, out in a public place). The throat is easily flushed by several rounds of gentle gargling and then spitting out the fluid solution.

The nasal passages can be flushed out using one of several methods. Most ear-nose-throat (ENT) doctors have a machine with a nozzle that will inject with mild force a warm saline solution into one of your nostrils while your head is bent forward and then the solution comes out the other nostril and also out your open mouth into a collection bowl. But why have this done only occasionally and at great expense at a doctor's office, when you can and should regularly do the procedure by yourself? As many of us have known for years, and as notably demonstrated on a Oprah Winfrey tv episode in 2008 devoted to nasal health, you can purchase a little ceramic or plastic "neti pot" (similar to those used since ancient times by India's yogis) or an inexpensive rubber bulb-syringe, and fill the neti-pot or syringe with the warm (not too hot) saline solution. Then, while bending the head forward and sideways-to-the-right over a sink, insert the end of the syringe or the tip of the neti-pot into your right nostril, and then, by squeezing the syringe or tilting the neti-pot downward, let the solution flow through the sinus passages, after which you quickly and forcefully exhale the solution and any cleaned-out nasal material (mucus, dirt, dust, allergens) into the sink. You can repeat the procedure starting with the left nostril and with the head raised sideways up to the left. You can flush the sinuses even more quickly and easily by simply pouring a bit of the same saline solution into a cupped hand and vigorously snorting the solution up into both nasal passages at the same time and then forcefully exhaling the contents into the sink; repeat this several times in a row. Whatever method you use, you can avoid the "gag" response or any feeling that you are drowning yourself by simply breathing through the mouth, as done by anyone who has learned to use a snorkel while skin diving. You will also want to experiment with the water temperature and the amount of salt or salt-&-soda in the solution to make the flushing experience as comfortable as possible.

This tremendously helpful nasal flushing-rinsing-douching can be done as often as you need during the course of a day to keep the nasal passages clear. Everyone who adopts this practice on a daily basis reports suffering far fewer colds, allergies, stuffy head, or impaired breathing. Once you've realized just how effective this nasal flushing practice is, you'll wonder why it has never become a regular hygienic practice in our Western society. But then, brushing our teeth (another practice known to the ancient Indian yoga tradition) has only been widespread in the West only the last 100 years or so.

It is especially important to perform this nasal flushing often during the waking hours once a head-cold has begun. And know that the salt or salt-&-soda solution itself has anti-microbial properties and will help kill the pathogens, in addition to clearing the nasal passages.

Along this line, numerous alternative health practitioners successfully get the upper hand over cold-causing pathogens by flooding the body's tissues with oxygen, for it is widely believed among professionals in the alternative medicine field that pathogens don't do well in oxygen-rich, healthy tissue. So you can help prevent or treat colds by deeply breathing lots of fresh, clear air, and also drinking lots of pure water (which, of course, has oxygen in it, and obvious flushing properties).

Sipping hot water--preferably as hot as you can stand it--is a useful health tip here, since most cold pathogens don't like heat. (This is part of the efficacy behind the old folk remedy: sipping hot chicken soup--a remedy, however, that holds no appeal for vegetarians or animal-lovers.)

Another use of heat for a good cold-remedy is this: put half an inch of water in a saucepan on the stove, boil it, and bend over the saucepan as close as you can without searing your face/nostrils and then breathe in the hot, moist air. This moist-heat treatment is excellent for getting rid of cold-causing microbes like the rhinovirus.

You can also ingest one of the various "oxygen water" products on the market. The French have been producing and therapeutically consuming this for decades, adding extra oxygen molecules to bottled water. This and food-grade hydrogen peroxide (which should always be diluted in a solution of 5-15 drops to a full 8-ounce glass of water) are available from most health-food stores today or from online internet providers. The theory here is that cold-causing microbial pathogens can't tolerate an oxygen-rich tissue environment.

Certain teas are especially good for the immune system, like echinacea, and then there are specifically sinus-drying substances like ginger tea (and "throat coat tea" for laryngitis). Consult a specialist in herbology (such as a Chinese herbal medicine expert) to find out about suitable herbs that your individual physiology can best employ to ward off or cure cold bugs by balancing your underlying bodily systems and energies. For instance, some of these herbs (like ginger and xanthium) have amazingly "drying" capacities, and others have extremely "moistening" effects.

A South African plant extract known there as Umcka (Pelargonium) has been clinically shown to reduce cold symptoms and end colds earlier.

Many people swear by certain homeopathic substances--sprays or gels that can be directly applied to the nostril or lower sinus areas, or else orally ingested as a pill or tincture. Ionic silver is one such substance that actually has some support from medical science experimental-design studies. The Europeans tend to be way ahead of researchers in the USA when it comes to exploring the effectiveness of homeopathic substances against colds and other illnesses.

For generally promoting good health, you must also give your body a better fighting chance by cutting way down on the consumption of junk foods—refined flours, heavy animal foods, or anything too fatty, salty, or sugary. And along this line...

Dr. Henry Bieler's Amazing "Vegetables Only" Approach to Preventing & Treating Colds

One of the very best and yet still relatively unknown methods for preventing or curing the common cold is a temporary “anti-cold fast” to allow one’s immune system to get the upper hand over colds.

Be aware here that digesting food is itself one of the most energy-intensive functions that your body performs. I've heard it said that up to 70% or 80% of the caloric value of the food you eat goes for the very purpose of digesting food! Therefore, when your body is ill, one of the very best things you can gift it with is some badly-needed rest, not just a respite from hard manual and mental labor, but also a respite from the burdensome load of digesting big meals and bulky snacks.

The late, great Henry G. Bieler, M.D., a widely acclaimed physician living and practicing enlightened medicine for over five decades in Pasadena, CA (see his classic book from 1965, Food Is Your Best Medicine, still in print) routinely cured people of bad colds (sinusitis and bronchitis) by putting them on a strict fast for 1-4 days of nothing but non-starchy vegetables (no carrots, potatoes, etc., and no oils, fats, proteins, salt, sugar, fruit, grains, meat, poultry, eggs or dairy)--just lots of green leafy vegetables (no salad dressing!), celery, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, zucchini squash (no winter squash--too starchy), and the like--especially in the form of his famous "Bieler's broth." As for fruit, a little bit of lemon or lime is okay, but no sweet fruits like bananas, raisins, apples, and even citrus fruits like oranges or grapefruit are problematic for many people susceptible to severe infections--best taken in the form of very diluted juices. The bottom line is that one can comfortably eat up to 400-500 calories per day for the few days spent on the Bieler anti-cold diet (if one needs that many calories), but these calories must come ONLY from non-starchy vegetables, pure and simple, and perhaps some very dilute, non-sweet fruit juices.

Going off this strict anti-cold diet and eating the temporarily proscribed foods (salt, oils-fats, sugars, starches and proteins) will "feed" the viruses and bacteria, and then they quickly multiply like crazy, within an hour growing exponentially, overwhelming the immune system and worsening the cold infection.

Over time, these viral or bacterial infections can form chronic or semi-chronic conditions—leading to situations wherein one suffers 2, 3, 4 or more colds every Fall-Winter season and throughout the year.

On a personal note, throughout my first 22 years of life, I would get terrible colds that developed into 10-day-long heavy sinus infections that moved into my chest and created bronchitis for the finishing touch. These persistent infections required lots of visits to the Ear-Nose-Throat doctor, along with a barrage of oral and injected antibiotics, anti-histamines, decongestants, and cough syrups. I missed, on average, some 15-20 days of school each year, some 250-300 days of school altogether over my elementary school, high school and college years. Yes, it gave me a lot of hours to read, contemplate and meditate (and, as a child, to watch too much daytime television!), but think of all that time taken away from other valuable activities....

When I first discovered Dr. Bieler's book at age 22 and shortly afterward tried his diet with one of my by now chronic sinus colds (four or five of them a year), I found I could completely cure any colds in just 1-3 days. Moreover, these colds came and went with few complications or problems: no heavy, infected mucus, just a first-day runny nose (clear fluid discharge, no mucus) followed merely by the bodily weakness but relatively clear sinuses on days 2 and 3 — and, meanwhile, no doctor visits and no pharmaceutical drugs. I could actually still perform graduate school work and job tasks.

What an amazing, empowering change for the better! No more long days after days spent mainly in bed-ridden bodily torpor and misery, with zero energy, and agonizing sinus headaches, later followed by the racking, draining coughing fits due to bronchial complications from the infection.

If you, too, are prone to the heavy sinusitis cold infections and want to check out Dr. Bieler’s purifying anti-cold fasting diet, be aware that you will need some good self-discipline to stay completely on this diet for those two or three critical days at the onset of a cold, i.e., from the time you first detect the sore throat and then the runny nose. Going off Bieler's temporary anti-cold diet during that vulnerable period by eating, say, some sweet fruit, nuts or salad dressing, rice-potatoes-bread, cheese, ice-cream, or even a bit of sweetener in one's tea on the first or second day of the cold-- will, alas, usually cause a quick resurgence of the illness as the viruses or bacteria "get fed" and rapidly multiply throughout the body. At this point, one will either need to resume and extend the fast (for much longer than if one had adhered to it properly from the outset!), or else go the normal route of getting very sick and then using the heavy allopathic medical regimen of "cold remedies" to try managing the symptoms (via anti-histamines, decongestants, cough syrups) or else hit the body hard with antibiotic drugs.

Needless to say, in addition to adopting the Bieler "fasting on vegetables," one should also try to physically and mentally rest as much as possible during such fasts, drink lots of water and non-sweet herbal tea, and, optimally, use enemas to keep the bowel tract healthy, especially if one maintains the fast for more than two days.

When should one end the Bieler fast-on-vegetables-alone? One will know for oneself when one needs to come off the fast and resume eating more normally because one clearly feels one's vital energy and appetite surge back. You'll no longer feel sick and will naturally feel like moving, exercising, and eating. And please note: as with all fasts, one does best NOT to eat a big, heavy meal when first coming off the all-vegetable fare, but start off with more easily digestible things like vegetable soups and small amounts of whole grains, healthy oils, nuts and seeds, fruit, etc.

Try out this remarkable Dr. Bieler anti-cold vegetable-diet whenever you detect the first signs of a cold, and see how you can knock it out with minimal symptoms and minimal lost time. For this reason, you'll want to do what I do: keep several packages of frozen vegetables (no sauces or spices) in your freezer to have easily and quickly on hand for starting up this diet whenever you feel a cold coming on....

We can close this section with inspiring words from the remarkable healer-physician, Henry G. Bieler, MD (1894-1975), whose skills were sought after by Hollywood celebrities and who was honored by his peers (a medical wing was named after Bieler):

"I began to suspect the close relationship between health and proper eating habits when, early in my career as an overworked young doctor, my own health broke down. I have always been a man of great curiosity and as I investigated deeply the chemistry of food along new lines, I came to the conclusion that I, personally must give up the use of drugs and henceforth rely solely on food as medicine. It was not long until, after repeated verified results, I discarded drugs in treating my patients. My colleagues, at the time, thought I had lost my mind. But time has only strengthened my belief....

"As a practicing physician for over fifty years, I have reached three basic conclusions as to the cause and cure of disease. This book [Food Is Your Best Medicine] is about those conclusions.

"The first is that the primary cause of disease is not germs. Rather, I believe that disease is caused by a toxemia which results in cellular impairment and breakdown, thus paving the way for the multiplication and onslaught of germs.

"My second conclusion is that in almost all cases the use of drugs in treating patients is harmful. Drugs often cause serious side effects, and sometimes even create new diseases. The dubious benefits they afford the patient are at best temporary. Yet the number of drugs on the market increases geometrically every year as each chemical firm develops its own variation of the compounds. The physician is indeed rare who can be completely aware of the potential danger from the side effects of all of these drugs.

"My third conclusion is that disease can be cured through the proper use of correct foods. This statement may sound deceptively simple, but I have arrived at it only after intensive study of a highly complex subject: colloid and endocrine chemistry.

"My conclusions are based on experimental and observational results, gathered through years of successfully treating patients. Occasionally I have resorted to the use of drugs in emergency situations, but those times have been rare. Instead, I have sought to prescribe for my patients' illnesses antidotes which Nature has placed at their disposal....

"People came to me who were disappointed in orthodox medical treatment--especially the stimulation drugs with which they were whipping the tired horses imprisoned in their bodies. They came to me for dietary reform usually because they had found out as they went along that food had something to do with their disorders and symptoms....

"We tend to think of health as something that comes in a capsule purchased over the counter in a drugstore, instead of as a state which we attain by following the laws of nature....

"I have been in disagreement with doctors who stuff the sick, exhausted man with powerful toxic drugs and then are forced to use other drugs to 'remedy the remedy,' as it were. Instead I 'fast' the patient on simple vegetable broths or diluted fruit juices in order to give the exhausted body organs an opportunity to discharge their waste products and heal themselves....

"I stopped using drugs in treating my patients when I began to reexamine an old axiom which is that nature is the true healer, using the body's natural defenses. The physician's role is to assist in that healing in cooperation with nature and not in replacing nature. Nature cures slowly just like trees grow slowly and not suddenly like chemical drug marketers claim....

"Under the proper conditions nature, if given the opportunity, is always the greatest healer. It is the physician's role to assist in this healing-to co-operate with nature's forces; to play a supporting role instead of star of the show. Nature does not follow Madison Avenue's "Feel Better Faster" but takes her time, slowly, as a tree grows, a little more each day. Nature never rushes to get a sick man or beast on his feet; she also demands a slow and steady convalescence. Sick animals rest or sleep and refuse all food until nature has healed them. " --from Food Is Your Best Medicine (first published in 1965 with many subsequent editions and printings to the present era).

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