10 Trusty Tips for

Preventing Cold & Flu


Suzy Cohen, RPh, is known as “America’s Pharmacist.” For the past 24 years, she’s been surrounded by sick people on a daily basis: she’s handled their money and has even been sneezed on. But when asked to recall the last time she had a cold or the flu, she pauses and says with laugh, “I can’t even remember! Eighteen, maybe 20 years? I just don’t get sick.”

How can that be? Cohen suggests thinking of your health like a bank account: you deposit money when you don’t need it, so you’ll have it when you do. Your first line of defense is building a strong immune system before sickness kicks in and maintaining it in times of health.

In addition to getting your annual flu shot, try Suzy’s tips for sidestepping sickness and staying healthy all year long.

Taste the Rainbow

Eat colorful food to prevent colds and fluCertain nutrients are linked with the pigment found in fruits and vegetables. So the more colorful your plate, the more vitamins and minerals you’re getting. That means eating a rainbow spectrum of living plant foods. Let’s hear it for Roy G. Biv!


Ever wonder what gives tomatoes, watermelon, and grapefruit their ruby red and pretty pink colors? It’s an antioxidant called lycopene. Antioxidants may minimize the effects of free radicals, the no-good toxins that damage cells over time and speed up the aging process.

Adding more antioxidants—including lycopene—­to your diet may help repair damaged cells, boosting your immune system and warding off chronic illnesses like heart disease and cancer.

Check out these recipes for tomato-rich meals.

Orange and Yellow

Sweet potatoes, carrots, butternut squash, mangoes, and bell peppers probably wouldn’t make the best-tasting smoothie. But, eating these tasty foods would give you a big boost of beta-carotene, the antioxidant responsible for most orange and yellow fruits and veggies.

Your body converts beta-carotene into vitamin A, which may strengthen your immune system and keeps your eyes, skin, and mucus membranes healthy.


Take a tip from Popeye: spinach will make you—and maybe your immune system—stronger. And so will other dark, leafy greens. Kale, spinach, and collard greens are rich in vitamins A and C. So are Brussels sprouts and broccoli.

Vitamin C usually claims most of the credit in the immunity department, but vitamin A is gaining attention for its ability to regulate and enhance immune system function. A lack of this crucial nutrient puts you at risk for infectious diseases like colds and the flu.

Blue and Violet

Perhaps it wasn’t Willy Wonka’s magic gum that turned Violet Beauregarde violet, but the antioxidant anthocyanin. This potent antioxidant turns blueberries, blackberries, cranberries, cherries, red cabbage, pomegranates, and purple asparagus hues of blue.

Foods in this color group tend to be high in fiber and the immune-booster, vitamin C. Vitamin C has long been linked to immune system health: from fighting off the common cold, to shortening the duration of symptoms.

But don’t just reach for it when you’re feeling under the weather. Include it in your regular diet to keep your defenses up through snowy, rainy, and even warm, sunny months.

Pick Probiotics

Eat probiotic foods to prevent colds and fluPurposely consuming bacteria may not sound like the best way to stay healthy. Don’t worry: we’re not suggesting licking public handrails or standing in front of a sick person’s sneeze mist. That would just be gross.

We’re talking about probiotics—the ‘good’ germs that you want growing in your body. The bowels are a breeding ground for trillions of microorganisms, which actually help the digestive system run smoothly. Probiotics are strains of good bacteria used to treat diarrhea and may keep inflammatory bowel syndrome (IBS) in check. “Anyone who wants regularity or has any kind of digestive concern—diarrhea, constipation, nausea, ulcers, or GERD—will benefit from them,” Cohen says.

However, research has shown that the benefits of probiotics may extend beyond the bowel. For example, they could help:

  • prevent and treat eczema in children
  • prevent and treat yeast infections and UTIs
  • prevent respiratory infections in children
  • stimulate the body’s immune response

Probiotics, for me, are an absolute essential every single day,” Cohen says. “Not only do they support immune health, they’re also fabulous for optimizing thyroid hormones, supporting weight loss, and boosting mood. And emerging studies are showing that they help with anxiety and problems with focus.”

Probiotics occur in fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, and miso. You can also find them in yogurts and aged cheeses, or buy them in supplement form. Because health benefits are linked to specific strains, it’s best to check with your doctor to decide which is best for you. Suzy Cohen recommends Dr. Ohhira’s brand because it’s live and natural.

“We all have a fingerprint of beneficial bacteria. It’s different from person-to-person,” Cohen explains. “Dr. Ohhira’s probiotics will support anyone. They don’t add in strains of germs that could be foreign to you. They only put in the  natural, normal flora that all of us have at birth. Therefore, the response rate [to Dr. Ohhira’s] is very good, because your body’s not fighting against it going ‘What is this germ? What’s this bacteria? This isn’t common to my gut!’”

You Must Have Mushrooms

Eat mushrooms to prevent colds and fluIf chicken soup has healing properties, mushroom soup has preventative ones. Eastern cultures have been using mushrooms for thousands of years to promote health and long life. And modern science shows that the immune-stimulating power of mushrooms is far from folklore.

The magic of the mushroom lies in a property it contains called beta-glucan. Beta-glucansstimulate immune cells that attack invaders like cold and flu germs. They also may protect against cancer. More research needs to be done, but so far, studies have shown promising results, especially in preventing the spread of tumors.

You can find beta-glucan in foods like shiitake and maitake mushrooms, oats, wheat, rye, and barley. It’s also available as a daily supplement in extract or pill form.

Go Green (Tea)

Green tea to prevent colds and fluFive thousand years of tea-touters were on to something, but it wasn’t until recently that scientists started taking teatime to task to uncover exactly which health benefits this leaf elixir offers. Green tea is made by steaming, rolling, and then drying the leaves. It’s the least processed tea, which means it brings the most benefits (think raw versus nuked food).

“I don’t recommend [green tea] supplements generally speaking, I recommend the tea,” Cohen says. “In that leaf, there are thousands of compounds that work synergistically. When you’re drinking the tea, you’re getting all of those [nutrients] all at once. It’s more alive and bioactive.”

The Little Antioxidant That Could

Green tea’s powers are owed to a little compound called ECGC, a type of catechin. Catechinsare the antioxidants found in dark chocolate, red wine, and the skins of fruits that give them that signature, slightly bitter flavor, and help fight off cancer-causing free radicals.

If cancer runs in your family, green tea consumption may curb cancer cell growth, according to BreastCancer.org. Several studies indicate a link between green tea and a healthy heart. It also may have antiviral properties that help stave off sickness.

According to a study published in the journal Antiviral Research, researchers found that ECGC is a potent preventer of flu virus replication. That is, it may help cut down on the length of lingering flu symptoms.

Experts recommend guzzling three cups of green tea a day.

De-Stress Before Your Body’s Distressed

Relax and de-stress to prevent colds and fluStress doesn’t just wreak havoc on your emotional and mental health, it also makes it difficult for your immune system to do its job. “Stress definitely makes us more susceptible to cold and flu,” Cohen warns. “[Stress causes your body to] release cortisol, which we know is a risk factor for illness. Heightened cortisol will lower your immune response.”

Stress triggers an alarm system in your body that sets off a series of reactions that prepare you to fend for your survival in a life-threatening situation. The fight-or-flight response is activated when the hormones adrenaline and cortisol are released. Your blood gets pumping, your energy levels increase, and your body suppresses processes that could interfere—like your digestive and immune systems.

We Are Not Our Ancestors

This response was helpful for our ancestors when, say, they encountered a bear. But missing a deadline isn’t actually going to kill you, and it certainly doesn’t require the same super-strength as tackling a bear. Yet, both situations initiate the same response in the body.

Once a threat passes (the bear decides he’d rather have a fish dinner), hormone levels drop back to normal. However, chronic stress caused by situations that don’t go away (you can’t notwork, right?) keep stress hormone levels constantly high.

This means your immune system is always operating at a low level, leaving you open for long-term problems like heart disease and depression, as well as immediate dangers like cold and flu. Several studies indicate that stress can make you susceptible to sickness, or can make symptoms worse.

Practice relaxation techniques like yoga and deep breathing on a regular basis, and get tips for managing situational and work-related stress and keep your immune system strong.

Water, Water, Everywhere

One sneeze sends about 100,000 germs flying into the air, as far as six feet away. Ninety percent of germs enter your body through your nose and your throat. You know that sniffling commuter sitting across from you on the bus this morning? Yep, you probably inhaled some of his bug-laden backspray—even if he managed to throw the crook of his arm up in time to catch most of a sudden sneeze.

And the flu can live on a surface longer than eight hours. That means objects like door handles, railings, light switches, and buttons on ATM machines are potential flu bombs. “Most people don’t know [that] you actually contract the virus three to four days before you start to feel the first symptoms. And you’re contagious—you’re exposing people to illness a full day before you even start to feel symptoms, maybe longer,” Cohen explains.

You can’t avoid touching every budding hotbed, but before you start drawing up plans for an insulated bubble, take these steps to safeguard yourself or at least stop a cold or flu in its tracks. “If you can get to the cold or flu virus within 24 hours, things are going to be a lot better for you. There’s going to be a lot less misery,” Cohen recommends. “So, action at the first sign of symptom would be great.”

Harness the Power of Plants

Plants to prevent colds and fluIf you’re starting to feel the first sign of symptoms or you know you’ve been exposed to cold and flu germs and want to stave off a full-fledge attack, try a homeopathic approach. While the jury is still out on many supplements that claim to quell the common cold and flu—studies show conflicting evidence—no one denies the effectiveness of the placebo effect.

Suzy Cohen recommends the over-the-counter (OTC) homeopathic throat and nasal spray FluNada, which draws on the combined power of elderberry, eucalyptus, mint, and Gaultheria. Together, these ingredients provide relief from the early onset of cold and flu symptoms such as runny nose, sore throat, and body aches. Check out the science behind the formula below.


Elderberry has long been used—especially in Western Europe—as treatment for many ailments, including respiratory infection symptoms like congestion. It’s also thought to boost the immune system. So what’s the science behind these little berries?

The Online Journal of Pharmacology and Pharmacokinetics published a study on the effectiveness of elderberry extract. Sixty-four people who had three or more symptoms of the flu for less than 24 hours were monitored. One group was given elderberry for two days, and the other group was given a placebo. The placebo group showed no improvement or worsened symptoms, while the other group showed “significant improvement in most of the symptoms.”

Another study published in Phytochemistry found that elderberry extract contains flavonoids with antiviral properties. Specifically, it blocked H1N1 from infecting potential host cells.

Eucalyptus and Menthol

Koalas aren’t the only ones who benefit from the eucalyptus tree (although they’re the only ones who should eat its leaves—it’s toxic to humans). Eucalyptus oil is known for its antiseptic properties, and for its ability to relieve chest-related symptoms like phlegm and cough.

A study in Alternative Medicine Review reported anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and immune-stimulating results when inhaled. Another study identified successful antibacterial activity against bacteria that cause strep throat, pneumonia, meningitis, skin infections, sinusitis, MRSA, and others.

You may think of mint as a classic toothpaste flavor or a garnish for a drink, but similar to eucalyptus, it provides relief from congestion.

Jump-Start Your Immune System

Immune System boosting foods to prevent colds and fluKick your immune system into high gear by ramping up your diet. Continue to heap hearty helpings of colorful fruits and veggies on to your plate and cut out the crap. Lay off fried, sweetened, or carb-rich foods, which don’t offer much nutritional value.

Suzy Cohen suggests making a smoothie using colorful berries or veggies, and adding a shot of an immune-boosting supplement like probiotics or spirulina. Hawaiian spirulina is a supplement derived from blue-green algae. It contains a variety of nutrients, including protein, zinc, iron, vitamins like A, B, and E, and more.

Some test tube and animal studies have indicated that it may strengthen the immune system by increasing anti-body production. However, these studies haven’t been performed on humans, and there are some concerns about its safety. Algae absorb toxins from the water they grow in, including bacteria and heavy metals like mercury.

Sleep It Off

Lots of sleep to prevent colds and fluSleeping does more than reboot your energy levels and give your mind a rest. The body repairs itself while you slumber, so the more snooze time you can get in, the better your body will be able to handle immune system threats—as well as cut down on recovery time when you’re sick.

Proteins called cytokines act as messengers for your immune system. Interleukin, a type of cytokine, tells your body to produce T-cells, the white blood cells that target and attack invaders like viruses and bacteria. This process is especially active while you’re lights out, making sleep essential to immune system function.

Lack of sleep has a similar effect on your body as stress does. You may think you function just fine on a few hours of sleep, but your body would disagree. Adults should aim for eight hours a night.

Keep Your Cold to Yourself!

Keep it to yourself to prevent colds and flu outbreakYou’ve done everything you can to stay healthy and you still come down with something. That’s a bummer, but don’t take it out on others. Make sure the bug stops with you.

“Be mindful of others when you’re sick,” Cohen suggests. “Maybe you don’t have to run that errand right now. Can’t that happen in a day or two? Can you send someone else? People will push themselves because they’re not thinking.”

Cold or Flu, That Is the Question

So how do you know what you’ve got? “A cold is generally wetter and above the neck,” Cohen explains. “So you see stuff going on up top, like sneezing, itchy or watery eyes, runny nose. With the flu, it’s a whole body, systemic thing: chills, and body aches, stuff low in the chest, joint pain, muscle pain, things like that.”

The flu is also usually more serious than a cold. Most people will recover from the flu after a miserable week or two, but some people, especially children, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems, are at risk for deadly complications. “There are hospitalizations associated with it,” Cohen warns. “From pneumonia to bacterial infections, and respiratory failure. These are very dangerous, virulent conditions.”

Don’t Discount the Little Things

Wash hands to prevent colds and flu outbreakDo everyone a favor: stay home and rest up when you’re under the weather. But if you must go out in public, practice extra courtesy around others.

“There are little things you can do,” Cohen says. “Sneeze into the crook of your elbow or even down your shirt or into your jacket. And wash your hands well. Soap and hot water do a good job of killing germs.”

And if you really want to go the extra mile in protecting others from what you’ve got, you can wear a surgical mask. You may look silly, but you also may save someone’s life.

On the flipside, if you’re healthy and someone is sneezing or coughing around you, move away from them. If you’re in an enclosed space like a bus or an elevator and can’t move, be outspoken to protect your health. Cohen suggests saying something like “I’m so sorry you’re not feeling well, but I’m worried about catching this, and I can’t afford to be ill. Can you please use this tissue?”

“It’s an awkward situation,” Cohen admits, “But you have to ask yourself ‘Is my health worth it, or not?’”


Suzy Cohen, RPh

About Suzy Cohen, RPh

Suzy Cohen, America’s Pharmacist™ is a licensed pharmacist for 24 years, and a Functional Medicine practitioner. In addition to writing a syndicated health column, “Dear Pharmacist,” for the last 15 years, Suzy hosts a medical minute on Know the Cause television. You may have seen her on the Dr. Oz Show, The View, The Doctors, 700 Club, or Good Morning America Health. She has appeared in hundreds of magazines and television shows nationwide.

For more information about Suzy Cohen, please visit: www.SuzyCohen.com.