How Doctors Avoid Cold and Flu Germs


With cold and flu season in full swing, we wondered how top docs personally battle nasty bugs each winter. Here are their expert tips for keeping pains, aches, sniffles, and sneezes at bay.

Wash your hands to keep germs away

The advice you’ve probably heard dozens of times from your doctor — cough. One study showed that buckwheat honey relieved children’s coughs even better than the dextromethorphan.

Chicken soup for colds and flu

Doctors say they use over-the-counter and antihistamines only when their symptoms are severe, and even then only sparingly. Many prefer natural alternatives, such as saline (salt and water) solution, which helps clear out nasal mucus. “One time when I had a cold I used it 18 times in one day,” says Marcella Bothwell, MD, FAAP, a pediatric otolaryngologist at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego. “You won’t get side effects from saline. Your body is mostly water, so you’re just putting into it what’s already there.”

Grandma’s good old-fashioned “penicillin” is another great soother of stuffed noses. “I’ve enjoyed chicken soup for years,” says Schachter. “The vapor alone clears nasal passages and relieves the throbbing in the .” Recently researchers have discovered what grandmothers have suspected all along — that the ingredients in chicken soup (including the chicken stock, carrot, onion, and celery) might actually have a medicinal effect on the body’s immune system, easing the inflammation caused by cold viruses.

Preventing colds and flu with acupuncture

The ancient Chinese medical tradition of using -thin needles to stimulate pressure points around the body has been used to treat everything from headaches to arthritis, and there’s some suggestion it might help with colds as well.

“I’m a huge fan of acupuncture, and I use it for prevention because there are many studies that show acupuncture boosts your immune system,” Richter says. “I get it about every six to eight weeks, and then more frequently if I get sick.” There isn’t any real evidence that acupuncture relieves colds, but considering the few side effects, trying it probably can’t hurt.

Over-the-counter medications for colds and flus

Our docs agree: When they’re feeling really awful, they turn to over-the-counter pain relievers. “The thing that I take most regularly is Tylenol, , or Advil,” Schachter says. “It’s that sick feeling — that achy, blah feeling you have when you get sick — that really bothers me.”

While cold and can ease the most severe symptoms, many doctors say they avoid overmedicating themselves. “I don’t like the feeling of taking a lot of medication, where my head feels fuzzy,” Hughes says.

When she feels sick enough to need a , Bothwell buys them individually, taking acetaminophen for a fever and a cough suppressant for a cough, instead of a multisymptom medication. Bothwell also chooses generics over the brand-name varieties. “One of my pet peeves is spending so much money on these cold preparations,” she says. “Sometimes those combination drugs give you a lot more medicine than you need, and they’re more expensive.”

Because doctors can’t afford to use sick days, staying healthy is essential. “I think I’ve taken two or three days in the last 10 to 15 years,” says Schachter. “With the kind of job I have, it’s hard for me to stay home.”

Bottom line

Prevention is the key. Our experts all say a is essential and they advise staying in the best possible health year-round. “Do the basics — eat right, sleep right, exercise, and wash your hands,” Richter says. “I work in a pretty high-risk profession, and I rarely get sick because I do those things.”