Staying healthy, when you’re a doctor, given the exposure to patients, is always a challenge. That they manage to do so during winter is nothing short of a Christmas miracle.
Cold and flu season is their busiest time of year, as waiting rooms fill up with people reporting the coughing, sneezing and aching that those seasonal viruses bring each year. Not only do doctors want to get us healthy ASAP, they want to avoid getting sick themselves if at all possible.
Here’s how those medical experts avoid getting bitten by the common bugs.
Health experts like those with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say this is the most important thing you can do to keep from getting a cold or flu. Wash regularly with soap and water for a full 20 seconds, or about as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice. Recommends Harvard Medical School: “Wet your hands thoroughly. Lather up with soap or cleanser, and rub it into the palms and backs of your hands and your wrists. Be sure to clean your fingertips, under your nails and between your fingers. Rinse under running water. Dry your hands and wrists thoroughly.”
When soap and water aren’t available, a few squirts of alcohol-based hand sanitizer will keep germs at bay. But be careful of shared hand sanitizer pumps, which can harbor germs, says J.D. Zipkin, MD, of Northwell Health-GoHealth Urgent Care in New York City. He suggests using hands-free automatic dispensers instead.
The CDC recommends that every adult get an annual influenza vaccine — studies show it can reduce your chances of coming down with the flu by 30 to 60 percent. That won’t just save you a few inconvenient days of feeling lousy: The flu can have serious, even fatal, complications like pneumonia. If you don’t get sick, you won’t pass the flu on to people whose health may be more vulnerable.
During sleep, the body produces disease-fighting antibodies and cells that neutralize toxic invaders. If you’re not getting enough quality shut-eye, that can weaken your immune system. The experts at the National Sleep Foundation say we all need seven to nine hours a night.
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Vitamin D, a renowned cancer fighter, seems to help ward off the common cold and flu too. Research has found that having a low vitamin D level is associated with “an increased susceptibility to infection.” Fifty percent of people worldwide are deficient in vitamin D, says the National Institutes of Health, which recommends getting 600 IU of vitamin D daily (800 IU if you’re over 70, to protect bone health).
Experts recommend sanitizing your cell phone weekly, or more frequently during cold and flu season. Keep antibacterial wipes handy so you can do regular wipe-downs, and you’ll cut the number of germs you transfer to your hands and face. “We tend to think that our cell phones only accrue our own germs, but many people place their cell phones on common surfaces such as chairs or restaurant tables,” says Zipkin. “This can pick up tons of germs from those surfaces.”
Studies have shown that taking zinc, a natural immune booster, can shorten the duration of a cold. But it’s important to take it at the first sign of illness. Experts like the Mayo Clinic recommend taking it in lozenge or syrup form within the first 24 hours of symptoms, as zinc is believed to stop rhinoviruses, which hang out near the back of the throat, from multiplying.
Sugar causes inflammation throughout the body, which hobbles our immune system by weakening the white blood cells that fight off infection. And most of us eat too much added sugar — the American Heart Association recommends that men have 9 teaspoons, max, per day, and women have no more than 6. The average American eats about 15. Cut down on sugar-sweetened beverages, processed foods and foods high in added sugar, and you might find yourself skating through flu season.
When you’re stressed, the brain pumps out the hormone cortisol, which impairs infection-fighting T cells in the blood. According to the American Cancer Society, people who experience chronic stress are more susceptible to colds and flu. This season, manage stress with exercise, relaxation techniques like meditation or mindfulness (apps can help), getting enough sleep and staying social.
Here’s another good reason to know when to say when: Alcohol breaks down into acetaldehyde, a toxin that makes white blood cells less able to kill germs and lowers the lungs’ ability to sweep bacteria and viruses out of the body. Just one night of heavy drinking is enough to significantly weaken the immune system, researchers have found. Experts including the CDC and American Cancer Society say men should have no more than two alcoholic drinks daily, and women one.
Studies have found that being sedentary can impair the body’s ability to fight infection. In winter, that can be a double whammy, when cold weather makes people less eager to get out and be active. The good news: There are more and more online exercise programs, apps and videos that can help you stay physically active without leaving home. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate physical activity every week.
“I always remind my patients that germs can lurk in unsuspecting places when we’re out and about,” says Dr. Christopher Dietz, area medical director for MedExpress Urgent Care. “Think about things you touch all the time – the pump at the gas station, the pen at the bank, shopping cart handles – and then think about how many other people touch those same things day after day. Unfortunately, these surfaces don’t get sanitized nearly enough.” Carry hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes, be careful not to touch your face after touching potentially germy surfaces, and make it second nature to wash your hands after coming home from running errands. And to live your happiest and healthiest life, don’t miss these 100 Ways Your Home Could Be Making You Sick