Winter is the season for colds and flu. According to Dr William Bird, medical consultant of the Meteorological Office’s Health Forecast Unit, December is when infections tend to become prevalent.
Here, we look at some ways you can minimise your risk of catching colds and flu.
- Keep warm
Granny was right – keeping warm can help you avoid coughs, colds and flu. Dr Bird says: ‘After our exceptionally mild autumn, people won’t be used to dressing warmly for wintry weather. So if there’s a sudden icy snap, we will be more likely to feel the cold and start to shiver.
‘Shivering depresses the immune system and this makes us more likely to catch colds. Also, lower levels of sunlight and altered levels of hormones such as melatonin and serotonin negatively affect how the immune system performs.’ We lose up to 30per cent of our body heat through our heads – so wear a hat.
- Wash your hands
Dr Nicola Goddard, clinical scientist at the Public Health Laboratory Service, says: ‘Although most infections are mainly carried in the air and transmitted by the “aerosol” effect when someone sneezes, germs can be transmitted by physical contact and enter the body when infected hands touch vulnerable parts like our eyes, mouths and noses.
‘These areas offer easy access to invading germs despite being equipped with defence mechanisms such as mucous and hairs. Washing hands often – and drying them on disposable paper towels (or laundering hand towels regularly) – can significantly reduce the chances of catching a virus, especially the rotavirus, which tends to infect children and causes vomiting and diarrhoea.
- Watch the weather
Low cloud, dull and misty conditions tend to bring an increase in germs, says Dr Bird. ‘Viruses survive longer when the weather is moist. They can hang in the air attached to water droplets more easily, and when it’s cloudy and dull there are fewer breezes to blow the germs away.
‘This is the time when you’re more likely to catch something – although you may not notice you’ve done so until ten to 12 days later, the incubation period for many colds and coughs.’
- Avoid huddling and heating
Because people are much closer together physically during winter, this makes it easier for infections to pass between people. Crowded trains and Tubes with little ventilation, department stores bustling with shoppers, and people gathering for parties all make catching a cold more likely.
‘Central heating reduces our defences and affects the respiratory system by drying out the protective mucous in our nasal passages,’ says Dr Bird. ‘The dry, stuffy air of central heating can also lead to sore throats and aggravate chest complaints like asthma.’ A humidifier can help.
- Herbal help
If your immune system needs pepping up to withstand the winter onslaught of germs, Echinacea should be an integral part of your daily routine.
The Echinacea plant was originally used by native Americans to heal wounds and infections. Nowadays, it is popularly used to boost the immune system in fighting colds and flu, and also as an agent to help heal viral and bacterial infections.
Although Echinacea is used to boost the immune system, it does tend to lose effectiveness with lengthy usage. Ideally, you should take it for no more than six to eight weeks at a time.
The normal dose is 3-4ml of alcoholic extract or 300mg of powdered herb tablets taken three times daily at the first sign of infection. It is not recommended for people with progressive systemic and autoimmune diseases such as tuberculosis, lupus or Aids.
- Zinc and garlic
The mineral zinc is essential to help fight colds and provide a boost to a flagging immune system. Good food sources include meat, oysters, eggs, seafood, tofu, black- eyed peas and wheat germ. Zinc and Vitamin C make a great cold-busting duo.
Garlic helps ease chest complaints, and small amounts taken daily may also reduce the frequency of colds and flu.
- Drink plenty
Doctors recommend we drink about eight glasses of water a day to stay healthy. Rehydration expert Dr Susan Shirreffs says: ‘Water helps the kidneys function properly and flushes out the toxins that accumulate in our bodies.’
If you have a cold, being dehydrated makes your mucus drier and thicker and less able to cope against invading bacteria and viruses. If you’ve already caught a cold, drinking plenty of fluids will help flush out the infection.
- Sleep soundly
Lack of sleep makes us more prone to infection, says Dr Bird. ‘But it’s not a matter of simply sleeping for longer, as some people – especially those who are positively motivated – can have fewer than seven hours’ sleep every night and not suffer at all.
‘Moods also affect our ability to fight off infections, and if you feel stressed you are more likely to become ill compared to when you’re feeling buoyant, happy and relaxed,’ he says.
- Keep on moving
Dr Bird says: ‘Don’t underestimate the importance of regular activity, especially in winter. Apart from keeping our circulation going, regular moderate exercise increases the number of natural killer (NK) cells in our bodies.’
These lymphocytes in the bloodstream and the mucosal layer of the nose and airways travel around our bodies scavenging foreign invaders such as bacteria and viruses.
‘When you exercise, NK levels go up and stay elevated for about 36 hours afterwards,’ says Dr Bird. ‘However, if you exercise too much, this will actually lower levels of NK cells.’
- Take vitamins and probiotics
Taking a daily multivitamin is especially important in the winter when we may be less likely to be eating enough fresh fruit and vegetables, and are also more at risk from infection.
Probiotics, such as lactobacilli and bifidobacteria, are ‘friendly’ bacteria in our intestines and increasingly recognised for their importance not only in maintaining a healthy digestive system, but for improving the body’s natural defence mechanisms. Studies have shown that taking probiotic supplements can improve the body’s resistance to bacterial and viral infections.
- Another reason to quit
Smoking increases the risk of infections by making structural changes in the respiratory tract and decreasing immune response, according to a study of smokers and infection published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2004. In particular, Mengel says, smoking destroys cilia, the little hairlike fibers inside our noses; this can help increase infection risks.
- Did you just double dip that chip?
Beware of the dip. It may be harboring more than savory salsa. Double-dippers may be passing germs to those who eat after them, Mengel says.
- Another reason to shop
Our purses pick up germs like we do, according to Joseph Brasco, MD, author of The Great Physicians Rx for Colds and Flu, so you could be re-infecting yourself every time you pick up your handbag. His suggestion: Put away your cloth purse during the winter months and carry one made of easier-to-wipe-down vinyl or leather. Of course, you could always just buy more purses.
- I hear your mother calling
Biting your nails may be hurting you, Brasco says. Germs get under your nails and nibbling is a fast way to ingest them.
- Eat broccoli
Eat broccoli and cauliflower and Brussels sprouts. These cruciferous vegetables are rich in antioxidant vitamins that bolster your immune system. They also help your cells to function properly and if you do come in contact with a virus to fight off an infection.
If it goes from simple sniffles to raging sickness, contact your doctor. Your cold may have escalated to the flu.