Why do I get sick so often and what can I do to get sick less often?
February 10, 2005 8:20 PM   Subscribe

I catch colds with alarming frequency- five or six times a year. If I make any sort of contact with somebody else who is sick, I can expect to have what they have within a day or two. I'm 21, HIV negative (recently tested and long abstinent), a vegetarian with a healthy diet, I excercise frequently and I take vitamins. I'm also currently taking Lexapro for depression. My question is twofold: first, what's wrong with me? Doctors insist that I'm fine. Second, what can I do to keep from getting sick so often in the future?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (40 answers total)
IANAD: Wash/disinfect hands often. Do not touch your face if your hands aren't clean.

Are you sharing phones, utensils, beverages with those who you deem sick? If yes, reconsider this behavior.

Just my two bits.
posted by sillygit at 8:33 PM on February 10, 2005

How is your health otherwise? If you're not suffering a lot of secondary infections or other illnesses, then the doctors are probably right - you could just be prone to colds. I also get every cold that comes through town but I am consoled because I rarely get sicker than that - flu/sinus infection/Montezuma's Revenge almost always give me a miss.

You can try the standard advice to reduce your susceptibility to resperatory illnesses: wash your hands very frequently in addition to all the good diet/exercise/vitamin stuff you're doing. Don't skimp on sleep - when I am sleep deprived for more than a week or two I will almost certainly catch a cold. Finally (and this may not be a factor for you) some recreational drugs really seem to do a number on the immune system. A lot of my weekly-ecstasy-indulging friends are constatly sick (all that lovey-dovey stranger-kissing may have something to do with it too).
posted by rhiannon at 8:41 PM on February 10, 2005

You mention you're a vegetarian...I certainly wouldn't expect you to change that, but some people I've known were sick a lot while vegetarian. Then they switched back to meat eating and their sicknessess went away. I think that it's likely that some people (for whatever reason, genetic, psychosomatic, whatever) are meat eaters, some people are non-meat eaters. Are you getting enough protein?
posted by zardoz at 8:47 PM on February 10, 2005

Something to keep in mind: The question says that anonymous gets colds with "alarming frequency"... five or six times a year. That's not "alarming frequency". That's "above average" if he has no kids and isn't around kids. If he is in college, has kids, or is around kids, that's average.

Maybe the questioner doesn't get sick too much but simply worries about it a lot? That's a very common syndrome. I am prone to it myself.
posted by Justinian at 8:50 PM on February 10, 2005

Wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands. The CDC calls it "The most important thing that you can do to keep from getting sick." Nothing fancy, just good old-fashioned soap and water -- and do it even if there's no soap. All that other stuff is great, and none of it will make a difference if you're not washing your hands.
posted by jjg at 8:54 PM on February 10, 2005

I dunno - if you have a school-age kid, six colds a year sounds like a vacation. When my daughter started preschool, I could barely breathe through my nose from October through March. (On preview: what Justinian said.)

If the sick people around you are are folks you know, and they're sneezing/coughing into their hands, you might ask them to use their elbow/sleeve instead (they're teaching this in preschools now). And wash, wash, wash.

Most likely this will get better with time. There are thousands of cold viruses around, but they do not mutate nearly as fast as flu. So you should be building up some immunity for later years.

And remember... antibacterial soaps will not do anything more to prevent the spread of colds than plain soaps. I don't know if those hand sanitizer things do much, but you might give them a try for times when a sink is not available.
posted by expialidocious at 8:57 PM on February 10, 2005

Have you ever had blood tests done to determine your CBC, white blood cells, iron, etc.? I know a few of my friends who sounded like you (young, vegetarian, relatively healthy and active), were sick due to low iron. Their blood wasn't getting the right amount of iron it needed, which can throw anyone's immune system off course.

Other than that, regular patterns of sleep, exercise and food might help your situation.
posted by carabiner at 8:59 PM on February 10, 2005

Hey anonymous, I had the same problem for quite a few years, until I started using these daily. Now I might get sick once per winter for a couple of days, that's it.

Plus, they're great for those late-night sessions, too.
posted by Aquaman at 9:03 PM on February 10, 2005

...I excercise frequently...

Intense, prolonged exercise (like marathon training) can reduce your immune response (I believe by stimulating cortisol which suppresses immunity). More moderate exercise is beneficial though.

There are thousands of cold viruses around

Not thousands. More like 100-200 strains (mostly rhinovirus). Which may explain the tendency for people to get fewer colds as they get older: they've already been exposed to, and are therefore immune to, more of the strains extant.

Taxes, title, and destionation charges not included, not to be used as a flotation device, objects are closer than they appear, etc, etc, etc
posted by TimeFactor at 9:11 PM on February 10, 2005

I'm usually sick for about 4 months out of the year, a lot of it contiguous (marathon 5-week colds etc.). It's just a weak immune system, plus the fact that I don't get out as much as most people so I have fewer immunities. I've BARELY HAD any in the last year or so, which is great. No particular lifestyle changes either, guess I just grew out of it (I'm 16).
posted by abcde at 9:12 PM on February 10, 2005

Anytime I leave "where I am" and either return or end up somewhere else, I wash my hands. Door knobs, people, stores, are germ filled and will give your white blood cells a work out.

Parties, alcohol, drugs, will weaken your immune system. The night of the party, or the very next morning, drink orange juice and take a multivitamin.

Exercise, either running or elliptical workouts are very healthy, and you'll feel great the next day following a workout!

Anyway, this is what works for me, I'm rarely sick. Good luck!

ps Lots of water!
posted by Mean Mr. Bucket at 9:14 PM on February 10, 2005

Some people just have weaker immune systems than others. I get sick maybe twice a year, my friend gets sick maybe once every few months. It's genetic.

As for staving off colds, my mother always told me to drink a lot of water and, when you feel the cold starting (before you really start showing too many symptoms) drink lemon tea with honey in it. It's killer on viruses...
posted by muddgirl at 9:15 PM on February 10, 2005

Those caps were accidental - playing with the caps lock key with my pinky as I type (gee, I'm not impulsive). No worse a place for emphasis as any, though.
posted by abcde at 9:16 PM on February 10, 2005

Aquaman: Vitamin C doesnt appear to help with colds.
posted by abcde at 9:19 PM on February 10, 2005

Whee, a punctuation error too!
posted by abcde at 9:19 PM on February 10, 2005

In college, I got horrible, week-long colds on a regular basis (every month). These episodes seemed to be caused by the interior mold and the constant AC/closed windows (which also caused the mold). Moving out of the dorm solved that problem.

Some 4 years ago, when I moved into my current home, I got those kinds of colds again. I blamed it on running the AC too low at night, plus keeping my bed directly under the vent. Fixing those two issues brought me into better health very quickly.

Though it is worth noting I'm also a person with a poor immune system - been that way since birth. Large temperature shifts (in either direction) tend to make me more susceptible to what's currently going around. Teaching music workshops at various middle schools doesn't help, either.
posted by Sangre Azul at 10:12 PM on February 10, 2005

I'm an echo, wash your hands. Don't touch your face/mouth/eyes. Are you sure you are getting colds and not some sort of allergy?
posted by 6:1 at 10:29 PM on February 10, 2005

I always feel like have a teeny-tiny trace cold. Anyone else have this feeling?

Otherwise, yeah your overreacting. 5 colds dosn't seem like a lot.
posted by delmoi at 10:41 PM on February 10, 2005

Presumably you don't smoke?

I know a nutritionist who recently decided, near the end of her education, that eating meat was the most efficient way to acquire multiple essential nutrients. After a long vegetarian life, she began judiciously eating meat again.

While I still feel that the average pork-slurping diet of the average bovine American is definitely UN-healthy, I'm less and less convinced over time that very many people have actually achieved a HEALTHY vegetarian diet.

It takes some work. I dated an 8-year vegan for a while and she was always sick, too. In fact, she'd developed this idea of having a "permanent virus" that was normally dormant but would pop up and cause symptoms if she ran herself down. Sounds like you're practically there yourself.

Eat an organic, free-range chicken breast and a salmon filet once a week, and see if you feel better. I'm not trying to give you a "buy a Mac instead" answer here. I really think you need to consider the possibility that you do not have the knowledge, time, or skill to be a healthy vegetarian.
posted by scarabic at 11:19 PM on February 10, 2005

I read somewhere (intentionally tentative) that along with hand-washing, people with weak immune systems should keep a bottle of (highly) diluted bleach or similar bacteria killer handy. Regular wiping of certain household hot-spots is the basic idea. Kitchen and bathroom sink faucets were on top, but there were more items on the list. I believe the source may have been HIV related, but perhaps not.

I know people in event promotion who intentionally "knock hands" instead of shaking them. Whether it reduces their germ exposure, I don't know.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 11:22 PM on February 10, 2005

Aquaman: Vitamin C doesnt appear to help with colds.
Yeah, that's what I hear, but the Emergen-C packs seemed to give my system just what it needs to stay ahead of the colds. There's some marketing language on the box which suggests there's more going on in there than just vitamins.

Who knows? It might not be the C itself, but I had similar symptoms (multiple short-term colds) and a similar diet, and these things really did it for me. Only a suggestion, of course!
posted by Aquaman at 11:32 PM on February 10, 2005

Cold-Eeze (a specific branded zinc gluconate formulation available OTC) at the very first sign of a cold usually knocks it dead for me. I even take it prophylactically when there are a lot of colds around. What it appears to do is impair the virus' activity before it has a chance to subvert enough of your cells to reproduce itself in enough numbers to overwhelm your immune system. (Note: I am not a doctor nor do I have relevant scientific training -- this is my lay interpretation of my limited understanding of the mechanism.) It's not terribly effective if you let a cold get established, but as soon as that tickly runny nose starts, take one, let it dissolve slowly, then another one shortly afterward. Drink water and avoid citrus for a couple of hours -- the action of the zinc ion is neutralized by citric acid.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:53 PM on February 10, 2005

a vegetarian with a healthy diet


Sorry to say that humans aren't vegetarian. No amount of moral strength will remove the basic need to consume meat. You can get close with a very careful diet, but you can never really cover everything your body wants.

(Did you know that if you try to force a dog to be a vegitarian you're condeming it to a short, painful life? Some vets consider this to be abuse worthy of reporting to the RSPCA.)

You could try finding a source of meat that shows some respect for the animals. Free range at the minimum, and humane slaughtering techniques. Then see how you feel after a few weeks of a light amount of meat.
posted by krisjohn at 12:43 AM on February 11, 2005

Just wanted to second the recommendation for zinc tablets. Unlike a lot of cures, they seem to have some scientific backing, and they certainly help for me.

Delmol, I used to feel like that until I moved out of my parents' house and it went away. When I go back, the feeling comes back. If you're like me, it's not a trace cold; it's an allergy to something in your environment. See a doctor and get allergy tested. You might end up getting a prescription for Allegra. You could also try getting a HEPA filter and seeing if that helps.
posted by yankeefog at 1:03 AM on February 11, 2005

This may or may not be relevant, but I used to get a lot of colds which would then turn into bronchitis -- I would be sick as a dog every time. And this happened over and over. Whenever my husband got sick, I would catch it.

Then I was diagnosed with asthma and started taking daily asthma meds and staying away from smoke (no more music in bars, for example), and since then I hardly ever get sick. (When I do, it's a doozy, though.) Now, if my husband gets a cold, most of the time I don't catch it. It's kind of weird. :)

My theory is that I used to get mild asthma attacks that I did not recognize as asthma (I never wheezed, and I was so used to how it felt that I didn't know my lungs were supposed to feel better), and then my lungs would gunk up, and bacteria, viruses, etc. found it to be a comfortable environment. Now that my lungs are not gunky the bugs don't find my system as hospitable. :)

So this may or may not be relevant to your situation, but if you are around cigarette smoke at all, you might try avoiding it and see if it helps. You never know.
posted by litlnemo at 1:26 AM on February 11, 2005

Alarming frequency is NOT 5 a year; every time one walks out the front door - that's alarming.
BUT even that can be stopped.
Try one or more of these, or try them all:

1. humidity - aim for 50%. In winter, the heater in your car drops it to near zero- a wet towel in front of the vent fixes it (be safe - defog). A warm mist vaporizer in the bedroom is next. A steam humidifier at work may drop cold/flu to near zero. Static sparks are red flags.

2. never touch your eyes without washing your hands - keep some alcohol-free handwipes or iodized tissues handy.

3. Buffered vitamin C - 100% pure calcium ascorbate - may be the golden bullet - get pills AND powder; one Nobel prize winner used several grams of C a day. Mix powder with distilled water, gargle, spray up the nose at the first itch or drip. An itch is a red flag; attack it. Repeat every time it returns.

4. echinacea tincture - a local doctor takes it by the teaspoon - in a weak unsweetened herb tea at the first sign of cold or the week before an important meeting. Teabags may work too.

5. keep warm - If your temperature is 1 degree below normal, your risk might be way up - a bit of cayenne pepper in herb tea, sip all day until your temp is normal. A daily Sauna or hot tub soak does wonders (drink lots of water first). Use a scarf or muffler in frosty weather.

6. Rest when you're dragging - if you feel exhausted, cancel all activity you can, take a warm bath, relax, nap.

7. Avoid junk food. Eat fresh or frozen fruit & veggies every meal. Take a multivitamin.
Eat whole grain foods, not white rice/bread/pasta/sugar/etc.
Avoid manmade sweeteners, spreads, coloring, preservatives, etc.
Avoid processed (clear) or hydrogenated oils - try extra light olive oil instead.
Eat no pig, catfish, or shellfish at all. Trim all fat from meat. Eat no ground meat you didn't see trimmed first (so no hot dogs, lunch meat, etc)

8. Mold can make you think you have a cold; If your A/C smells, get it cleaned. Avoid cold mist humidifiers.
Mold can cause post nasal drip.

9. Post nasal drip could make one a sitting duck for a cold;
Mix the C powder, wash the drip out of your nose & off your throat. Try nettle herb capsules.

10. Sore throat is a red flag! Knock it out fast. Zinc lozenges are good - check label for all natural ingredients. Fish Oil, Flax Oil, Borage Oil caps may help too. Crush a garlic clove & a Vitamin E cap, mix in olive oil or applesauce, coat your throat.
If you have heartburn, treat it - avoid aspirin & NSAIDs; Calcium+Magnesium supplements work for me.

11. Drink lots of chlorine-free water; take some with you! Never _ever_ get thirsty. If your temp is low, try fluoride-free (well, bottled, or distilled).

12. Don't smoke, drink, or do drugs. Don't hate, keep grudges, or get revenge. Stay monogamous. De-stress, sing, laugh, hug, smell the roses. Abstinent is best for singles. Be generous. Never admit you expect a cold until it is obvious to everyone you have one.

I am not a doctor, YMMV.
Lots of good advice by others already IMHO.
Prevent, fight back at the first sign - an hour now or all day tomorrow.
The longer you wait, the longer it takes to see improvement or relief.
posted by Charles the Friend at 2:17 AM on February 11, 2005

I second the folks here encouraging allergy testing. Do you often have sinus congestion? Before getting treatment I did, all the time, and had plenty of colds, throat bugs, ear bugs, etc. to match. A few years of shots has made a big difference; I don't get sick as often as I used to.
posted by tss at 6:40 AM on February 11, 2005

I get sick with some frequency, and I've always attributed it to my having pretty significant allergies. Having constant allergies wears your immune system out, making you more susceptible to virii and such.
posted by eas98 at 6:45 AM on February 11, 2005

When I was vegetarian I used to get every cold that came down the pike. Five a year was a good year for me. And they were always bad ones, most of the time progressing to bronchitis, strep throat, ear infection, etc.

I was a good vegetarian, taking supplements and drinking protein shakes etc. etc. etc. I started eating meat again about six years ago and the colds immediately stopped. I now average one mild cold every two years. I'm not a huge carnivore but somehow adding a bit of fish or chicken a couple of times a week as well as a steak occasionally made a huge difference.

Also, when I start to get a cold I attack it with both barrels. I get 12 hours a sleep each night until it's gone. I drink echinacea tea, chomp vitamin C and Zinc lozenges like they are going out of style. I take EmergenC and Airborne. I drink all the juice and water I can get my hands on. I dress comfortably and warmly. And I convince myself that I am NOT going to get this cold. I tell everyone that I'll be over it by tomorrow. Seems to work. YmmV.
posted by tinamonster at 7:37 AM on February 11, 2005

you can never really cover everything your body wants.

I dunno if I'd go that far.
posted by scarabic at 8:40 AM on February 11, 2005

I dunno, unlike everyone else here, I'm of the "coddling yourself will make your immune system weak" school. I drink, I smoke, I go out with wet hair in the dead of winter, I don't eat meat, I give in to negative passions, I bite my nails after touching the subway pole and I get sick 2-3 times a year for a day or three at a time. I used to get sick even less, but working at home reduces my contact with varied dirt and I think that makes me more susceptible. Go out, be dirty, get strong.
posted by dame at 9:08 AM on February 11, 2005

>I don't wash my hands more often, I wash them better.

Seconding that. I've also read that in addition to making sure you hit all surfaces, including under the nails, you need to make sure the soap stays on your hands for at least 20 seconds to kill germs.

Sudsing up for a slow 20 count at the sinks at work will get a raised eyebrow from your co-workers who will assume you're completely OCD, but it did seem to help me when I was working in an office. (Now that I work at home in a warm climate, I haven't gotten a single cold this winter. So you could also try the "avoiding all people and all cold weather" plan!)
posted by occhiblu at 9:24 AM on February 11, 2005

Not on preview: I guess dame's experience with working at home nullifies mine! Ah well.
posted by occhiblu at 9:25 AM on February 11, 2005

The Nobel prize winner that took several grams of Vit. C daily was Linus Pauling, a position that remained controversial through his life. It isn't even controversial anymore: the Linus Pauling Institute itself recommends 400 mg of Vit. C daily and submits there isn't a point in medadoses.

I've heard of instances of people going vegetarian and doing it badly -- not getting enough protein or enough of some micronutrients. Since we don't know anything about your diet save that it's vegetarian and you call it healthy, for all I know you are missing something. I recommend Eating Well for Optimum Health and Becoming Vegan for info on eating right.

I've been vegetarian for about 14 years, and have rarely had so much as a cold. There are a lot of vegetarians in this world, folks. If we were all sick all the time, someone would have noticed, honest.

All that said, my best guess is that some people are genetically predisposed to be healthiest on a diet that includes meat, and some aren't. I think the one-size-fits-all-diet is a bad idea in general (and Eat Right 4 Your Type with its one-size-fits-your-blood-type approach isn't an improvement.) Maybe you'd do better on scarabic's suggestion of including some meat protein in your diet.

(But the current best data is that if vegetarianism affects one's life expectancy, it's only positive, and no degree of assertion will make meat a basic need for all humans.)
posted by Zed_Lopez at 9:55 AM on February 11, 2005

See occhiblu, I think it just proves there are two methods, and working at home would help out in the "clean and isolate" version. Because you are killing all the germies you can, you want to isolate. But if you're letting your immune system get a workout on the weaker germs, then isolating wouldn't help because you are making it get less of a workout and ths be more susceptible. At least that's how it goes in my twisted mind.
posted by dame at 10:02 AM on February 11, 2005

Regarding zinc and echinacea, the American Lung Association says that their efficacy is unproven. OTOH, I have seen reviews that say that zinc is effective. I've taken it before, but I'm ambivalent since it didn't seem to help very much and the scientific community is divided as well.

The upshot is that not everyone agrees zinc will help, and I think even fewer think that about echinacea (and I'm not impressed by the appeal to authority of "a local doctor" either).
posted by grouse at 10:53 AM on February 11, 2005

isn't zinc supposed to be good for men's sex lives?
posted by matteo at 11:17 AM on February 11, 2005

dame, I think it was actually more getting away from my co-workers, many of whom have small children and therefore many of whom were always sick during the winter (Boston's cold-weather nastiness didn't really help).

So that's another recommendation: Avoid any and all persons who have contact with children!
posted by occhiblu at 1:52 PM on February 11, 2005

I've always been told that regular soap doesn't really kill germs, it just acts as a surfactant and helps strip grease from your hands, and wash away particulate matter.

A thorough scrub under a tap even with plain water can be highly effective, it just takes longer.

I personally don't get sick very often - the last cold that ripped through my social group was one that I completely avoided, and I was taking no extra measures to avoid it - even kissing my partner while she was stuck at home and feeling miserable.

Personally, I believe that being too clean can contribute to illness. I worry about all the antibacterial soap and fear of germs that is being pushed to consumers - if your immune system doesn't get practice, how can it properly defend?

On that note, though, I am very careful with food hygiene.
posted by tomble at 4:22 PM on February 11, 2005

Linus Pauling Institute's Micronutrient Information Center:
"it appears reasonable to reevaluate the use of high-dose vitamin C as cancer therapy"
A dog my size would make itself about 3000mg of C a day.
I have caught cold taking 500mg of C a day, but not often.
I have often felt better for an hour or two after taking buffered C or echinacea.
I don't choose to feel terrible all day because no one has tested people who need more C on days they need more C.

I have no idea if people who seldom get colds benefit from taking more than 500mg of C a day.
Do you live near a chemical plant? I do - and some days years ago I held my breath from the house to the car. Can you see across the street or is it too smoky?
(I find the car's A/C makes breathing bearable on those days)
I don't take all that much C when no one is sick and the air is clear.
If I had never had a week-long cold I can't say if I would be so careful.
Thank GOD I don't have to put up with a cold that long now.
posted by Charles the Friend at 5:27 PM on February 14, 2005

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