You’ve diligently slashed your waste all year long when you come down with a nasty bug in the final stretch. You go through boxes of tissues and bottles of decongestant and vats of store-bought drinks. The bug makes you feel terrible and the trash, guilty. Don’t be so hard on yourself! You’re sick! But if you want to reduce your waste during the cold and flu season, the following tips will help.
Drink plenty of liquids?
I looked up the benefits of the advice that we always hear when we come down with a cold—drink plenty of liquids. Well, it turns out, there are none—that we know of at least. No study has ever validated this advice. But when I feel like I’m coming down with something, a cup of hot tea does comfort me. My younger daughter likes to drink hot water when she has a cold.
If you do drink more liquids when you feel sick, you have plenty of zero-waste options to choose from—water, green tea, herbal tea, kombucha, ginger beer, kvass and so on.
Get plenty of rest
You can tackle this one easily without producing waste unless you sleep on disposable sheets. I wrote that tongue in cheek but thought I better google “disposable sheets” and Target sells them. God help us.
Use a neti pot properly
When my daughter MK has a cold, she uses a neti pot to flush mucus out of her nasal cavities. It’s like a waste-free decongestant. To use this small teapot-like vessel, fill it with sterile water or saline solution, tilt your head over a sink, pour the solution in one nostril, let it drain out the other and then repeat on the other side.
If you use a neti pot, you MUST do so properly. Earlier this year, a 69-year old woman in Seattle contracted a very rare brain-eating amoeba infection from improperly using a neti pot. She had filled it with tap water filtered through a store-bought filter, rather than with the necessary sterile or saline water. The amoeba in the water migrated to her brain from her nose. If you drink water with these amoeba, stomach acids will kill them. Your nose cannot.
According to this article in Popular Science, neti pots “are actually very safe—if you use them properly.”
Blow your nose into cloth handkerchiefs
This past Sunday, when my volunteers came over to sew produce bags, they made a few out of the sturdier parts of an old, worn flannel sheet. I made some handkerchiefs out of some of the remaining parts. To make these, I cut squares out and finish the edges quickly on my serger with a rolled hem. You can also simply cut up some fabric and not finish the edge. You’re making handkerchiefs after all, not a prom dress.
I first made some of these about 12 years ago and still use them. They don’t disintegrate upon nose blowing the way throwaway tissues do. I can blow into them several times before I need a clean one.
Occasionally, I do get some strange looks when I pull one out in public and use it. I don’t know how people think we managed to blow our noses before throwaway tissues hit the market. Did we blow into leaves? Deploy the old hold-one-nostril-and-blow-out-the-other-toward-the-ground method? Eventually, real handkerchiefs will become normal again.
Resist running to the doctor’s office when you have the sniffles
I asked my doctor sister if she had any zero-waste medical tips for alleviating cold and flu symptoms. Here’s what she said:
“I gave this some thought but I am ashamed to say that doctors are NOT zero wasters. We use disposable stuff all the time—thermometer probe covers, vaginal specula, alcohol wipes, table paper etc., etc. A lot of this is because of infection control and our College has been known to inspect physicians’ offices to see if they meet standards.
One good thing we do is resist prescribing antibiotics to people who don’t need them—people who have a virus. People are more open to this than they were 20 to 30 years ago but I still find the odd one who gives me a really hard time if I don’t prescribe an antibiotic for their flu.
The only other thing I know of is zinc lozenges. You have to use a lot of them though, and use them religiously throughout the cold and flu season. They do have a very modest benefit in preventing colds. Studies on echinacea and vitamin C and such are pretty disappointing although I know a lot of people have faith in them.”
Several years ago, I read the masterpiece The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee. It made me wish I had gone to medical school like my sister Michelle. (If you know any high schoolers who show an interest in biology, do them a huge favor and give them this book.)
PBS also made a series out of the book in 2015. In one of the segments that stuck out to me, a doctor explained that everyone would rather work on cures rather than prevention. Why? He said that cures are sexier.
The following preventative measures may not be as sexy as those disposable sheets I mentioned above but they will help keep you healthy this cold and flu season.
Cover the basics
We’ve all heard the advice: eat a healthy diet, get enough sleep, exercise regularly, avoid excessive stress, wash your hands often, elude sick people and do not touch your eyes, nose and mouth with your (possibly contaminated) hands. I’m a bit out of balance at the moment—I scheduled too much this month—and need more sleep and less stress.
Consider getting a flu shot
Because my sister is surrounded by sick people, she gets the flu shot every year. Last year in the US, the flu killed 80,000 people—the most in over a decade. Apparently, having never had a flu shot, I’m taking my life in my hands. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website states that “The single best way to protect against the flu is to get vaccinated each year.”
If you usually get the flu shot but have recently taken up the zero-waste torch and so worry about the waste your flu shot will create, consider instead all of the waste a single hospital trip will generate. If you’ve whittled your waste down to such a small amount that you worry about one syringe, you waste less than about 99.9 percent of Americans—at least.
And if you need to take meds, don’t let your zero-waste guilt syndrome (ZWGS) prevent you from taking them.
Go easy on the bleach
Wait, what? Won’t killing germs prevent illness? One problem with killing all the germs is we can’t build immunity to them if we never come into contact with any. And many household cleaners like bleach kill not only bad bacteria but good bacteria as well. As a result, our guts come into contact with fewer good microbes. The authors of The Good Gut, pioneers into research on the microbiome, advise us to clean our homes with less toxic ingredients, such as vinegar, castile soap and lemon juice.
Make fire cider
People swear by this stuff. Essentially, you steep garlic, onions, hot peppers, raw honey and spices in apple cider vinegar for a few weeks at least, strain it and if you feel a cold or flu coming on, drink some every day—or drink it if you feel well. Make sure you use vinegar with the live mother, such as Braggs, to get all the beneficial microbes. Raw honey also contains beneficial cultures. Check out this fire cider recipe from Kitchen Counter Culture.
Eat your kimchi*
After I kicked the plastic in 2011, I didn’t get so much as the sniffles for three years. Since then, I’ve had one cold (maybe two—I need to keep better track) and a nasty bug last winter while visiting my mom at Christmas. Before 2011, I caught every bug circulating every year for as long as I can remember. I’d so much as look at a small sniffling child and I’d come down with the flu.
Although I have only my own anecdotal evidence, I credit my improved health to a couple of things: cutting processed food (thus consuming more whole foods) and eating more fermented—i.e., probiotic—foods like my homemade kimchi. I eat at least one fermented food every day.
The beneficial bacteria teeming in fermented foods like sauerkraut, or dill pickles, or kvass, or fermented chutney or fermented salsa improve your gut flora, which controls your health, your mood and your weight. Fermented foods are also more nutritious than their non-fermented ingredients. Lacto-fermented vegetables contain higher levels of B vitamins, such as thiamin, riboflavin and niacin, for example. Fermentation also preserves vitamin C. Hence Captain James Cook took barrels of sauerkraut on his ships to help prevent scurvy in his crew.
In The Good Gut, the authors write “To create an environment where antibiotic use is infrequent, prevention is key. Having school-age children means that our household is a revolving door of runny noses and scratchy throats. Eating a nutritious diet and probiotic foods can help limit the number of illnesses and minimize their duration.”
*results may vary