News of the coronavirus and photos of people wearing respiratory masks worry us and make us wonder if we are at risk. We want to know how the new virus makes people sick and why it kills about 2% who get infected.
Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses whose effects range from causing the common cold to triggering much more serious diseases, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). Signs of the virus are typical of less severe illnesses: headaches, coughing, runny nose, sore throat and a fever.
Will I get sick?
The coronavirus is spread through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. That is why the World Health Organization recommends masks for sick people and those who care for them, but masks do not help well people.
As with all diseases, the difference between someone who dies and someone who gets mildly sick lies in the response of the individual immune system. Those with a genetic immunodeficiency disorder or a secondary immunodeficiency from active AIDS, cancer or viral hepatitis as well as those of advanced age, and those with underlying chronic illnesses, like diabetes and high blood pressure, are of greater risk. The CDC recommends the following steps to best prevent infection:
- Wash your hands with hot water and soap.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Work from home when you’re sick.
- Clean and disinfect objects you frequently use.
- Use tissues when you cough or sneeze and and throw them away immediately.
Boost your immune system
It is the job of a healthy immune system to mount a vigorous defense against antigens, toxins and other foreign substances in your body. This defense consists of developing antibodies: cells specifically developed to fight the threat. There are many simple things you can do at home, to support and strengthen your immune system, both in response to the threat of the coronavirus as well as to protect you from more benign maladies.
One of the most important things you can do to protect your immune system is to get plenty of sleep. It is necessary in order for your immune system to work as efficiently as possible, and without enough sleep, your body will have a hard time fighting illness. In fact, the body’s ability to function declines if we don’t sleep for seven to eight hours a night. The National Sleep Foundation recommends the following amount of nightly sleep:
- Newborns (0-3 months): 14-17 hours
- Infants (4-11 months): 12-15 hours
- Toddlers (1-2 years): 11-14 hours
- Preschoolers (3-5): 10-13 hours
- School age children (6-13): 9-11 hours
- Teenagers (14-17): 8-10 hours
- Younger adults (18-25): 7-9 hours
- Adults (26-64): 7-9 hours
- Older adults (65+): 7-8 hours
Up to 60% of the human body is made up of water. Water helps the body carry oxygen to the cells so that our systems function properly. It also removes toxins from the body, so drinking plenty of water is essential to strong immunity.
The usual recommendation is to drink about 8 cups a day. This is about 2 liters or half a gallon. Or, consider consuming water according to your weight and drink between half an ounce and one ounce of water for each pound you weigh. Here are some ideas from Self to help you drink enough water:
- Add lemon, lime and cucumber slices, or mint sprigs to your water.
- Drink a glass of water after each bathroom break.
- Drink a glass of water while preparing dinner.
- Use a high tech bottle with a customized app.
- Keep a gallon jug nearby.
- Drink sparkling or mineral water instead of soda.
- Drink unsweetened herbal tea or green tea.
- Use a cool glass or a cool reusable straw.
- Fill your glass back up as soon as you empty it.
- Reward yourself when you meet your water goals.
Another way water can help is through hydrotherapy. Take a hot bath. Get into a sauna or hot tub. Inhale steam infused with herbs. Soak you feet in hot water or wrap them in a hot compress. Plus humidifiers can help with dry coughs and winter dryness.
What we eat can strengthen or weaken our immune system. Foods with a high sugar content, for example, compromise the ability of white blood cells to fight bacteria. Dairy products can aggravate respiratory congestion so should be avoided if you or your children are congested.
Garlic is both a preventative and a remedy. Proven to destroy viruses and bacteria—including those responsible for colds, flus, and strep throat—garlic also effectively reduces fevers by inducing sweating, and it relieves coughs and colds by helping to expel mucus. It is most effective if eaten raw—in a tablespoon of honey (only for children over a year), in salad dressings, in hummus or tahini dips, mixed with plain yogurt and grated cucumber, or crushed with olive oil or butter to spread on toast.
Ginger is a potent antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties. Add ginger to cooking, drink it in a hot lemonade or make a ginger foot bath. Ginger is an aromatic so avoid boiling it as this drives off the volatile oils, which are the active ingredient. Here’s a recipe for warm lemonade with ginger.
- Put 4 to 6 slices of fresh ginger root into a teapot.
- Pour a pint of boiling water over the ginger root.
- Let stand for a few minutes.
- Strain into a cup.
- Add lemon and honey to taste.
- Sip slowly.
Chicken soup actually does have health benefits. It can ease the symptoms of the cold and the flu.
Vitamin C plays a vital role in enhancing immune functions and tissue healing. During cold and flu season, take extra vitamin C. Overdosing on this water-soluble vitamin is not likely, but avoid a sudden decrease in dosage, which can cause increased susceptibility to infections. Food sources of Vitamin C include: citrus fruits, berries, pineapple, papaya, mango, kiwi, peppers, kale, broccoli, and cauliflower,
Zinc has been shown to protect against and help fight colds. High doses, however, can depress immunity. It is best absorbed at the start of a meal. Take it during periods of susceptibility to colds. Oysters contain more zinc per serving than any other food. Other food sources of zinc include: beef, crab, lobster, baked beans, chicken, and pork.
Vitamin A, beta-carotene, and the B-complex vitamins (B-1, B-2, B-6, B-12, biotin, niacin, pantothenic acid, and folic acid) also contribute to optimum immune functioning. Take a multiple vitamin that contains a balance of these vitamins as extra insurance against illness.
Over the Counter
Echinacea (purple coneflower) has been shown in clinical studies to be a highly effective boost to the immune system because it stimulates the production of disease-fighting white blood cells. The key is to administer it liberally–a dropperful of the tincture every few hours–at the first sign of a sudden chill, sore throat, or sneezing. Once an infection has already set in, echinacea is not as helpful. Often the timely administration of echinacea can prevent sneezing or a sore throat from turning into a full-blown cold. Echinacea should not be given on a continual basis, however, as that decreases its effectiveness.
Oscillococcinum is effective at the first sign of the flu.
We are not helpless against infection and disease. We can protect our immune system on a regular basis and strengthen it when we’re fighting something off. Our immune system is meant to protect us and we can help it to do so.
If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding
Here are some resources on the coronavirus regarding pregnancy and breastfeeding:
About Peggy O’Mara. I am an independent journalist who edits and publishes peggyomara.com. I was the editor and publisher of Mothering magazine for over 30 years. My books include Having a Baby Naturally, Natural Family Living, The Way Back Home and A Quiet Place. I have conducted workshops at Omega Institute, Esalen, La Leche League, Hollyhock and Bioneers. I am the mother of four and grandmother of three. Please sign up for my free newsletter with the latest posts on parenting, activism, and healthy living.