Common Cold Prevention—with Water?

Common Cold Prevention—with Water?

Healthnotes Newswire (March 2, 2006)—People who gargle regularly with tap water get fewer upper respiratory infections (URI), and their symptoms tend to be less severe, according to a study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (2005;29:302–7).

A URI, usually referred to as a cold, is a viral infection that can affect the throat, nose, sinuses, and ears. Generally mild, the illness is characterized by symptoms such as runny nose, scratchy or sore throat, nasal congestion, sneezing, cough, headache, and sometimes muscle aches and fever. More than one billion colds occur in the United States each year, making it the most common acute illness and the leading reason for doctor visits.

Medications such as decongestants, cough suppressants, and analgesics for pain and fever can sometimes offer temporary symptom relief. Minor side effects from these drugs can include sedation or excitability, but more serious side effects have also been attributed to their use. Antibiotics have no effect on viral infections; nonetheless, millions of prescriptions are written each year for people seeking relief from common colds. This widespread overuse of antibiotics contributes to the growing problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The best approach to managing URIs is prevention, yet effective preventive measures remain elusive. Many people use herbal and nutritional supplements such as echinacea and vitamin C in the belief that they ward off infections. Although these agents are known to strengthen the immune system, there is little evidence that they can prevent colds. Hygiene, such as hand washing, is the only established method for preventing the spread of the common cold. In Japanese society, gargling with water or medicines containing iodine is a common practice for preventing URIs. In one preliminary study, school children who gargled daily with an iodine solution were found to be 28% less likely to get colds than children who did not gargle.

In the current study, 387 healthy people between the ages of 18 and 65 were randomly assigned to one of three groups: gargling with tap water, gargling with a solution containing iodine, and no gargling. The first two groups were instructed to gargle and spit three times in a row, three times per day, using 20 ml (a little less than one ounce) of water or iodine solution for about 15 seconds each time. All of the people kept a daily log to record any URI symptoms they experienced during the 60-day study.

The risk of URI was 36% lower in the group gargling with water compared with the nongargling group. People in the water-gargling group were also less likely to develop lower respiratory symptoms (associated with more severe infection). The iodine-gargling group had an 11% lower risk of URI than the nongargling group, but this difference did not reach statistical significance. No difference in symptom severity was found between those gargling with iodine and those not gargling.

These findings suggest that gargling with tap water is an effective way to prevent URIs. Gargling with iodine, however, does not appear to offer the same protection. In light of these findings and the simplicity and low cost of this practice, people who want to prevent the common cold can be encouraged to gargle regularly with tap water.

Maureen Williams, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. She has a private practice in Quechee, VT, and does extensive work with traditional herbal medicine in Guatemala and Honduras. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.

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