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The Best Defense for Cold Season

First comes the telltale tickle in the back of the throat, followed by a sneeze, a runny nose, and the dreaded hacking cough. On average, Americans catch two to four colds each year. Colds are especially prevalent during late fall and winter, which is why most of us, echoing our mother's warnings, blame the chill in the air or the day we left the house with wet hair.

Granted, the plunging mercury can make people more susceptible to the 200-plus viruses that cause sniffles, but the prime culprit lies elsewhere (read more below). Taking care of your body can significantly reduce your risk of illness -- or, at the very least, minimize your sick days. In short, just because it's called the common cold doesn't mean it has to be.

Avoid Germs
A handshake at a dinner party, an office mate's sneeze, a child's bedtime kiss -- all can transmit the germs that cause colds. Contact with an infected person or object, combined with the touching of your own mouth, eyes, or nose, is the way you're most likely to contract a cold. The virus invades the soft tissue of the nasal passages, where it multiplies and produces symptoms in two to three days.

The most effective way to prevent cold germs from doing their dirty work is also the easiest: frequent hand washing, and not just a cursory rinse. "Get your hands wet, lather up with soap, and do some good rubbing for 30 to 45 seconds," says Dr. Keith Roach, associate professor of clinical medicine at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. (If counting at the sink seems like no fun, sing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" or "Happy Birthday to You" in your head twice; it takes about the same time.) When you're finished, "turn off the faucets with a paper towel," Roach says. For times when it's not possible to wash up after a handshake, carry a bottle of hand sanitizer, which is better than nothing. As an added precaution, be diligent about keeping your hands away from your face.

Take Care of Yourself
"Most people catch colds when they're stressed or run down, because their immune system is battered," says Dr. Christiane Northrup, a medical speaker based in Yarmouth, Maine, and the author of "Mother-Daughter Wisdom: Understanding the Crucial Link Between Mothers, Daughters, and Health" (Bantam; 2006). Dr. Nancy Snyderman, associate professor of otolaryngology and head and neck surgery at the University of Pennsylvania, advises making sleep a priority and lowering levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol, which weaken the immune system. "I'm a big believer in massage and frequent walks to unwind," she says.

Stay Home and Rest
If you get a cold, rather than valiantly ignoring your symptoms, take it easy until they run their course. Experts say you're most contagious during the second and third days after your initial infection, so consider staying home. When you must head to work or anywhere else, prevent the spread of germs by cleaning shared telephones with disinfectant wipes and disposing of tissues promptly, says Snyderman, who puts her own positive spin on the season's most unwelcome calling card: Assuming you're otherwise in good health, "a little cold can actually rev up the immune system. It says to the white blood cells, 'I need you right now.' And that's not such a bad thing."

Some Popular Treatments and Whether They Meet Their Promises

Colds come from viruses, so unless you develop a secondary bacterial infection, antibiotics won't do a thing.

Chicken Soup 
Experts debate whether overall nutrition plays a role in cold prevention. But if you're already home sick, this soup can offer more than comfort, scientists say. A bowlful provides heat, salt, and hydration -- all of which may shorten the duration of a cold and strengthen the body.

Cold Medicines
Studies indicate that expectorant syrups are no more effective at dislodging mucus than drinking water. And while decongestants dry out secretions, some sprays can lead to dependence when taken for longer than four days.

Several clinical trials in recent years have shown that this extract from the purple coneflower doesn't work any better than a placebo.

Swishing with tepid water three times daily can wash away germs and reduce the incidence of a cold by 36 percent, according to a study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine last year.

Although many doctors recommend these steam machines, they also caution that if not properly cleaned, humidifiers can expose you to mold, which can worsen a cold.

Vitamin C
In 2005, researchers at Australian National University reviewed 23 studies on people who took up to 200 milligrams of vitamin C daily. They found that such a regimen didn't reduce the risk of catching a cold for the general population -- although it did lessen the incidence for those exposed to extreme physical stress or frigid temperatures, such as marathon runners and skiers, by 50 percent.

Ten years ago, doctors at the Cleveland Clinic found that people who began taking 13.3-milligram zinc gluconate lozenges within a day of feeling their first symptoms (and continued taking them every two hours) got better in an average of 4.4 days, compared with 7.6 days for the placebo group.

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