ĎTis the season -- for colds and the flu
† By: Thomas Osborne, M.D.
They say thereís a season for everything, and here in the northland itís hard to tell which one gets the most attention this time of year: the holiday season or the colds and flu season. This winter, the two donít have to be at odds. You can take steps to prevent a cold or the flu from ruining a family get-together or Christmas party, just by establishing a few simple habits.
First, though, hereís a little background on colds and the flu. They arenít the same thing. While both are caused by viruses, a cold settles in your upper respiratory tract. As your body reacts to the virus, you get the symptoms of a cold -- nasal congestion, sneezing and the sniffles. Influenza, or ďthe flu,Ē has a larger range of symptoms. These can include headache, fever, muscle aches, congestion, sore throat, a cough, nausea and vomiting. While a cold may linger as an uncomfortable nuisance, the flu can be more serious, and even life threatening in some cases.
The good news is that there is a vaccine available for preventing the flu. This is your best defense against contracting it. There isnít a vaccine to prevent colds, so healthy habits become all the more important in helping your body avoid and fight the many different viruses circulating out there. Most of these habits are pretty simple and straightforward. Utilizing them consistently will increase the likelihood that your holiday season is a healthy one.
Wash your hands. Most viruses are spread by direct contact. Someone with a virus coughs or sneezes into their hands and touches a telephone or doorknob or kitchen table. Germs can live for hours on surfaces and can rub off onto your hands when you touch the object in question. So wash your hands often.
Sneeze or cough into a tissue, not your hands. Germs cling to your hands, and sneezing into them results in passing along your germs to others. Use a tissue to catch germs and then throw it away immediately. If a tissue isnít available, sneeze into the upper arm of your sleeve. When outside, turn your head to the side and sneeze into the air.
Keep your hands in your pockets. Or at least keep them away from your face. Most germs enter your body through your mouth, nose or eyes. Keeping your hands away from those areas keeps germs away as well.
Hydrate. Water washes waste materials from your system and hydrates you in the process. It also keeps mucous membranes moist and healthy. If you do catch a cold or the flu, hot tea can help to soothe a sore throat and ease nasal congestion. Also remember that you lose a lot of fluids when youíre sick, so keep a glass of your favorite healthy beverage nearby at all times.
Exercise. You knew it was coming. Exercise seems to help just about everything, including our resistance to colds and the flu. So join an aerobics class, take an early morning run or sweat to the oldies. Stay moving and stay healthy.
Eat healthy. Just like exercise, a healthy diet can go a long way toward maintaining your health. In this case, eating lots of dark green, red and yellow fruits and vegetables can give your body a boost in its resistance to colds and the flu. Fruit juices provide vitamins while helping the hydration process. Some studies have shown that eating a cup of low-fat yogurt each day reduces susceptibility to colds. If one does catch you, however, and your nose is congested, you might want to try spicy foods -- seasoned with cayenne, curry, chilies or horseradish -- to help clear things up.
Take a sauna. Research isnít clear on the exact role that a sauna can play in preventing colds or the flu, but one theory is that the hot air in a sauna -- usually more than 80 degrees -- is too hot for cold and flu viruses.
Get fresh air. The forced-air heat in many homes can tend to dry out mucous membranes, making us more susceptible to colds and the flu. Getting outside for a healthy dose of fresh air can help reverse this process.
Keep your air fresh -- by not smoking. Smoke dries out nasal passages and paralyzes the delicate hairs that line the mucous membranes.
Stay well rested. Getting enough sleep helps your body stay strong. If you do catch a cold or the flu, resting can give your body the energy needed to fight the virus. For most people, between six to eight hours a night is the right amount of sleep.
Avoid large crowds. Germs are spread from person to person. It only makes sense that more germs will be present (and spread) when lots of people are together in a small space. Donít skip your office Christmas party, but take steps to avoid crowded situations when you can.
There are lots of viruses out there, and avoiding all of them would be nearly impossible. If you do catch a cold, continue following the steps outlined above, making especially sure you drink lots of healthy liquids, and stay warm and rested. Over-the-counter remedies may help decrease your symptoms and make you more comfortable as the virus runs its course. Usually a cold only lasts a week or so, but some can hang on longer. Like a long winter, the wait can seem endless. Take heart. By the time the holidays and cold and flu seasons are over, spring will be right around the corner.
Dr. Osborne is a board certified family practice physician at Raiter Clinic in Cloquet.