SATURDAY, Dec. 11, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Dr. Jack M. Gwaltney Jr. used to get a lot of colds when his children were little and, later, when his grandchildren came to visit; catching a cold is almost inevitable with little germ factories running around the house.

"The best way to avoid getting a cold is to avoid people," said Gwaltney, an infectious disease expert and professor emeritus of the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Virginia School of Medicine.

"If you're a hermit, you'll never get another cold," he quipped.

By some estimates, Americans suffer about 1 billion colds over the course of year, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases reports. Coronoviruses, responsible for many adult colds, usually strike in the winter and early spring. Since colds are highly contagious, taking simple steps to prevent them can avoid a lot of misery.

The best way to prevent a cold -- if you're not a hermit -- is to avoid contact with someone who has a cold, particularly in the first three days of that person's illness, Gwaltney said. Even that, of course, can be difficult. "If you're a mother [with a sick child], you can't," he conceded.

The next best thing is to wash your hands after you've been exposed. Cold viruses are readily transmitted from a cold sufferer's hands to another person's hands. It's also easy to pick up germs by touching contaminated objects and surfaces. So a mother who has just fed her runny-nosed child and tucked him into bed would be wise to go wash her hands, he noted.

John C. Brown, a professor in the Department of Molecular Biosciences at the University of Kansas and author of the book Don't Touch That Doorknob!, recommends that people sing at least two rounds of "Happy Birthday" to themselves while washing up. That's about how long it will take them to adequately soap and scour their hands before rinsing.

"The main thing that's actually doing the work is the scrubbing of the skin," he explained.

Washing with soap and water doesn't kill the cold virus, infection control experts say, it just removes it. But removing it keeps it away from your eyes, nose and mouth, where the virus can enter the body. Once the virus penetrates those mucous membranes and enters a cell, it can cause infection.

"If a person can develop a habit of not touching their face, that is going to be very protective," Brown said.

Some people swear by vitamin C to prevent colds, an idea popularized by Nobel laureate and famed chemist Linus Pauling. A healthy diet that includes vitamin C, certainly, will help the body's immune system function properly, experts agree. But the value of dosing up on the antioxidant remains questionable. Taking large daily doses of vitamin C doesn't reduce the incidence of colds, says the Cochrane Collaboration, a British nonprofit group that reviews medical evidence from clinical trials. But it does appear to modestly reduce the duration and severity of cold symptoms.

As for other popular nutritional approaches, neither echinacea nor zinc has been proven to prevent colds, and evidence of their cold-fighting properties is mixed. A dearth of large, randomized, double-blind, controlled trials makes it difficult to know for sure what is effective in staving off colds and soothing stuffy noses.

"I hear of more treatments for colds -- people send me all kinds of stuff, and they might work or they might not," Gwaltney said. But [without those rigorous studies] you don't know."

If you do get a cold, you might get relief from over-the-counter antihistamines, decongestants and pain relievers such as ibuprofen. These drugs can help block the bothersome symptoms of a cold that are the body's response to the infection, Gwaltney said. But those remedies must be taken at the first onset of symptoms to realize their benefit, he added.

Others tout a more cautious approach, recommending that people ask their doctor or pharmacist about what, if anything, they should take.

Jeanne Pfeiffer, president of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, said the best way to let the body fight off infection is to get plenty of rest and increase fluids to a cup per hour. Pfieffer, who still gets her share of colds, noted that a person who increases fluid intake may not even need decongestants.

"When I get them, that's exactly what I do: I push fluids," she said.

More information

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has more facts about the common cold.

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