Gym flu? Gesundheit.

If someone has a common cold, it's common courtesy that he work out at home. Any crowded communal space is a giant petri dish for germs, especially the cold-causing rhinovirus. At gyms, factor in dozens of shared surfaces, damp locker rooms, and towels that stand up on their own-and the place you visit for optimal health may send you to bed for a week.

The main culprit is the common sneeze, a projectile that launches 100,000 infectious particles at an initial velocity of 200 miles an hour. "Put your hand to your mouth when you sneeze, and you've got a handful of virus," says Chuck Gerba, Ph.D., a microbiologist at the University of Arizona. "Some of them survive for days on surfaces."

Bacteria and viruses play hopscotch on barbells, dumbbells and weight plates. Do 12 reps, touch your finger to your eye, and you've got a cold. "Our studies show that a person in a room with a cold coats 30 percent of the room's surfaces with viruses," says Gerba. "You literally pick up colds on your fingers." The most effective germ spreaders? Bicycle and stairclimber grips.

A gym's wet areas can also be rife with virus. "Taps, sinks and water fountains are some of the most heavily contaminated sites," says Gerba. Doorknobs leading out of locker rooms are comparatively clean, since most people wash their hands before leaving, but knobs leading in have tenfold the contamination.

Wiping down equipment between sets helps, although Gerba says that germs and viruses can simply be spread around-especially if you don't know the condition of the towel being used. A better bet is isinfectant wipes or sprays.

Meanwhile, avoid touching your fingers to your face. And wash your hands with hot soap and water frequently and thoroughly during cold and flu season. Check with your gym's management if you suspect regular cleaning of equipment, locker areas, showers or pools has fallen off. 

Don't forget your flip-flops when walking in locker rooms; they'll help protect you from fungal infections that cause athlete's foot. Finally, know that your gym bag is prime territory for a germ rave. Get one that's machine washable-and then wash it regularly. Remove damp towels and sweaty clothes each night. In more ways than one, you'll breathe easier.

Working out when Sick

If, despite your best intentions, you get gored by a rhinovirus, working out while you're sick is unlikely to speed your course of recovery. Throw in the gym towel if you're burning up. "Studies show that working out with a fever causes more relapses and can worsen symptoms," says David Nieman, Ph.D., professor of health and exercise science at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. "If it's a head cold, moderate exercise is fine if it makes you feel better."

Some runners swear that a five-mile jog clears their clogged sinus passages. Their theory is based on the release of epinephrine, a supposed natural decongestant. "That's actually not true, and an overflooding of epinephrine can lead to negative immune changes," Nieman says. "In animal tests, it leads to severe consequences if the body's already weakened."

When weathering a cold or flu, time is your best ally: Write off about a week for a cold and two weeks for the flu. The latter is distinguished by fever, fatigue, and extra aches and pains.

When symptoms start, pare your schedule. If sniffles are severe, take a day or two off to rest. Get extra sleep and drink more fluids to moisten mucous membranes, which are the body's first line of defense against virus. Should your cold descend to your lungs, you may be at risk for bronchitis or pneumonia, so see your doctor.

There are hundreds of prescription, over-the-counter and folk treatments for colds and flu. None of them will cure you, but some of the following can shorten or lessen your misery. 

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Meds that work 

Many pharmaceutical companies now offer single products for multiple symptoms. Make sure you're not taking more medicine than you need.

Cold treatments tackle symptoms, not causes. Some combine a full range of cold fighters: nasal decongestants, cough suppressants, and expectorants that loosen mucus. Overuse of nasal decongestants can worsen congestion; stop after three days.

Aspirin and acetaminophen relieve cold and flu aches and reduce fever in flu.

Prescription drugs can shave a few days off flu duration and lessen symptoms. You must take them within 48 hours of symptom onset. Relenza is administered through an inhaler, and Tamiflu comes in pill form. The older drugs amantadine and rimantadine are still used, but cover fewer influenza strains. Don't bother with antibiotics, which attack bacteria, not viruses.

Flu shots are recommended for kids and seniors, those with impaired immune systems, and people who mix with large groups of people, such as teachers. Normally, you'd get the shot in November before flu season kicks in, but shortages have prompted officials to ask healthy recipients to wait until December.

What may work

Alternative treatments are largely driven by anecdotal evidence, as a flurry of contradictory studies find both efficacy and failure.
Know your zinc. That's the advice of George Eby, who patented the zinc acetate lozenge. His exhaustive Web site, www.coldcure.com, explains why. The study tally: Six say zinc cuts a cold's duration by up to 50 percent; five say it doesn't. Zinc zealots say the negative studies used ingredients that bind with zinc, hampering potency.

Megadoses of vitamin C won't help your cold, and too much can cause liver damage. The antioxidant does boost immunity, however, and the minimum daily requirement is essential.

Echinacea, made from various coneflowers, is purported to stimulate the immune system's fighter white-blood cells. A review of clinical trials reports that effectiveness of the herb is "suggestive at best."

Goldenseal, often combined with echinacea, is said to contain active antibacterial and antimicrobial alkaloids. Problem is, they aren't absorbed during digestion. Although sold widely, goldenseal is an endangered herb.

Oscillococcinum works on the theory of micro-dilution, that using infinitesimal amounts of what made you sick in the first place can cure you. Its primary ingredient is heart and liver cells from Muscovy ducks. Why a duck? Pourquoi pas le canard? is the attitude of French manufacturer Boiron. "Studies [published in the British Homeopathic Journal] show it just works," says a company spokesman. Caveat emptor. 

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STAYING IN THE HEALTH ZONE
James Rouse's passion for endurance sports always paid huge health dividends. Then he extended his workout and was rewarded with fatigue, recurrent colds, slow recovery, irritability, anxiety and sleeplessness. "I remember feeling how unjust it was that I worked so hard and was getting so sick," says Rouse, 38, a naturopath in Denver, Colo.

Rouse didn't realize that his accelerated training schedule could compromise his immune system. Getting healthy was actually making him sick.

Break It Up
Overtraining and stress have long been known to compromise immune function. A 1987 landmark study of marathon runners found that they were six times more likely to get sick after completing a race than non-runners. But exactly how much exercise is bad for you?

"When you push the pace for 90 minutes or more, that's when the immune system begins to wear down," says exercise scientist David Nieman. "That translates to any high-endurance activity, including cycling, rowing and tennis."

The culprit is the hormone cortisol, which floods your insides during bouts of physical and emotional stress. Immune cells in a dozen parts of the body begin to fray; they can remain in their fragile condition for as little as three hours or as much as three days. Along with making you feel tired and grouchy, such stress can cause an increased morning heartbeat, something that those favoring pre-work workouts should keep in mind.

You can fudge the 90-minute figure by breaking up your workout. Nieman studied Olympic athletes who did just that. "They train up to three hours a day, but their infection rates are not high," says Nieman. "They also manage stress well, get enough sleep, and maintain an excellent diet." He suggests a "health zone" of optimal activity from 30 to 60 minutes.

If you've only got one training slot per day, try substituting low-impact activities now and then, especially if you're feeling off. You can also incorporate stretching throughout your workout, not just before and after, and remember to take minibreaks during long cardio sessions.