Health Matters: New weapon in fight against common cold

Conway McLean, DPM, Journal columnist

There are certain medical conditions that are part of life, the human existence. For example, arthritic joint pain is experienced by most humans at some time in their life. What about the common cold? Nearly every one of us gets one at some point.

As most Americans know, a cold is a viral infection, the virus belonging to the class termed a rhinovirus. Due to current circumstances, many of us have learned more about viral infections than we could dream possible. One critical item is our inability to end a viral infection with a drug. Bacterial infections can usually be stopped with one antibiotic or another. This is not the case for infections resulting from a viral invasion. These can only be prevented. That’s where vaccines come into play.

The best defense against a viral infestation is a healthy immune system. But there is much we do not fully understand about the complex function of these challenging infections. We do know certain components of our diet are necessary for a powerful immune response. These vitamins and minerals provide the materials required by our body for a strong immune system, whose job it is to fight off invading organisms, as well as identifying and neutralizing harmful substances from the environment.

It starts with a sniffle, a sudden sneeze, perhaps a tickle here or there. Within a few hours, a cold can attack with ferocity, dragging you into bed. Home remedies abound, from exotic teas to acupuncture. Modern medicine has had little to offer in the way of treatment, with all of our options amounting to symptom relief only. The usual platitudes are made, from staying hydrated to rest, honey and lemon for a sore throat, acetaminophen for pain. Notice that none of these are going to have any effect on the duration of the ailment.

The human body’s immune system has many vital functions. It allows our body to recognize and fight off a host of disease-causing pathogens (germs) like bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi. This system also aids in removal of neutralized pathogens. Other harmful substances that invade the body from our environment are identified by the immune system and removed. Unfortunately, our immunity does not work efficiently against viral infections, which are able to take over cell function from within. Thus, our immune cells can’t identify the infected cell as foreign.

Optimal immune function is the result of many things, with nutritional intake being one of the keys. Most educated individuals have heard of the importance of antioxidants in our diet. But new research has highlighted the benefits of an essential element of biologic function, the mineral zinc. It’s one of the elements, right there on the periodic table.

Interestingly, zinc is found in cells throughout the body, and serves many functions. It assists this complex system in fighting off invading microorganisms. The body also needs zinc to make proteins and DNA (the genetic material in all our cells). This element is also important to normal taste perception. Every human body that is actively growing needs zinc to develop properly. Zinc is an essential mineral involved in over 100 chemical reactions in your body. In addition, it supports wound healing, even reproductive health.

An important international group of experts recently deliberated upon the evidence and issued an important proclamation. All the appropriate studies were examined and it is now official. The consumption of zinc, especially in an oral form (like a lozenge) will shorten the duration of a cold. Much of the information pointed also to a reduction in the intensity of the affliction but more conservative authorities wouldn’t go that far. Still, it seems clear this is another benefit of zinc supplementation.

Food sources high in zinc include poultry, red meat, seafood, and many whole grains. Oysters contain the highest amount, with almost 500% of the recommended amount in a 3-ounce serving. Of course, as is generally the case in nature, too much of anything is a bad thing. Excess consumption of this elemental substance can result in a variety side effects. The most common are nausea and vomiting, but another less publicized is the lowering of your good cholesterol, your HDL’s.

Experts have set the upper level for daily intake of zinc at 40 mg for adults. More than 50 mg per day is not recommended and is more likely to lead to the side effects mentioned. Although some foods can provide amounts of zinc well above the guidelines, there are no reported cases of zinc poisoning from the zinc that is naturally occurring in food.

Up until recently, it was generally thought that the supplementation of zinc was only for people who were deficient in the substance. The continued advance of science has further elaborated it’s potential role as a supplement. It appears to be essential as an anti-infective and anti-inflammatory agent, even in people who don’t have zinc deficiency.

More important is the take home message here. There is something you can do, something simple, that can make a real difference. Stop your cold, well, at least shorten its duration. The early consumption of zinc via lozenge can apparently reduce the intensity of the symptoms. Besides, zinc helps to keep your immune system strong. We now have an effective weapon in the fight against the common cold.

Editor’s note: Dr. Conway McLean is a physician practicing foot and ankle medicine in the Upper Peninsula. Dr. McLean’s practice, Superior Foot and Ankle Centers, has offices in Marquette and Escanaba, and now the Keweenaw following the recent addition of an office in L’Anse. McLean has lectured internationally, and written dozens of articles on wound care, surgery, and diabetic foot medicine. He is board certified in surgery, wound care, and lower extremity biomechanics.


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