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Can vitamins or specific foods prevent and fight colds and the flu?

It depends on who you ask.

Many doctors, including Dr. Diana Wilkins, a family physician in the Town of Tonawanda, are skeptical, and say clinical studies have rarely shown specific foods, drugs or supplements have a dramatic effect.

Extra vitamin C, echinacea or other supplements “are not going to hurt you but they’re not going to protect you from the cold or flu, not what I’ve seen from the evidence,” Wilkins said.

What about aloe?

“It does have certain (antiviral) properties,” the doctor said, “but the problem with all those herbal remedies and supplements is that they’re not held to the same standards as prescription medications in terms of the evidence-based studies and literature, so it’s very difficult. … The evidence is just lacking.”

Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests some foods and herbs have strong cold-fighting properties, others say.

The Feel Rite store website lists several cold- and flu-fighting prospects in the wellness library – including andrographis, echinacea, Vitamin C and sage – but a close reading shows the scientific case remains incomplete when it comes to their power against colds and the flu. Company staff declined an interview request this week.

“The best thing to do, generally, is rest, push fluids and wait it out,” Wilkins said. “The best way to treat a cold is with time.”

That takes too much patience for most of us. Some medications help alleviate symptoms, but many cause drowsiness. If you take a decongestant, that can raise blood pressure. If you’re thinking about even over-the-counter meds, it’s a good idea to talk to a pharmacist or call your doctor.

It’s clear there’s a market for all sorts of things to address colds and the flu. Last winter was one of the worst cold seasons in a decade, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That led to a 38 percent jump in sales for Johnson & Johnson and a 9 percent increase for Procter & Gamble, according to Advertising Age magazine.

Some studies suggest home remedies can rival traditional drug treatments. Chicken soup and local honey, for instance, have been popular for generations.

Chicken soup relieves congestion, limits inflammation – due to inhibiting the movement of neutrophils, an immune system cell – and speeds up the movement of mucus in the body, Mayo Clinic reports have shown.

Writer William Faulkner, a hot toddy enthusiast, recommended them for a bad cold, broken leg and broken heart. That’s understandable, considering the recipe: ¼ cup whiskey, a squeeze of lemon, 1 tablespoon of honey and ½ cup boiling water or hot tea. Combine all ingredients in a mug and drink while still hot.

Healthy eating, exercise, proper sleep and good hygiene all help prevent a cold or flu (see related stories, Pages 7-8), Wilkins said. While she questions the use of supplements and herbs, she also understands their usefulness in other realms.

“A lot of doctors will recommend various supplements – magnesium to help with migraines, B-complex to help with energy – so there’s a whole variety of vitamins and minerals that truly have their place in medicine,” Wilkins said. “There just isn’t that robust amount of literature and evidence to help back up and support their use like some prescription medicine” when it comes to treating colds and the flu.

“I take a daily multivitamin with an adequate amount of calcium and Vitamin D,” she added. “Other than that, I try to maintain a healthy diet. The best way to get an adequate supply of vitamins and minerals is always through your diet rather than through supplements.”

Wilkins will deal routinely with sick people throughout cold and flu season.

How will she cope?

She’s had a flu shot. “Hopefully that will keep me safe this winter,” she said.

“A lot of the rest of it,” she said, “is caution when you’re handling patients, and a lot of hand-washing. Plus I like to think I’ve been exposed to a number of things and had my fair share of illnesses through my training, and that perhaps my immune system is a little bit better because of that. You never know.”