By Randy Bergen, MD
As the winter months approach and viruses begin to circulate, you may wonder if there are tricks to avoid getting sick.
Colds and influenza, or “the flu”—which has similar symptoms to a cold but is more severe—may be unavoidable, but you can still minimize the seriousness of an illness or how often you catch a bug with a few simple germ-fighting strategies.
There are a lot of urban legends—almost equal to the number of viruses—about how to beat common illnesses, so you have to sift through fiction to get to the facts. Here are a few widely accepted ways of fortifying yourself this season:
Wash Your Hands. Washing your hands is my No. 1recommendation for staying healthy. Whether using a sanitizing gel or water and soap, make sure to clean your hands frequently. Viruses live on phones, door knobs, money—basically, everywhere—so when we touch surfaces and then rub our eyes or nose, we are exposing ourselves. If you sneeze and cough into your hands, wash them immediately so you don’t spread germs.
Get an influenza Vaccine. Influenza is the most serious viral illness every winter, and it affects millions of people. While the upcoming season is not expected to be unusually severe, any “flu” season has the potential to make people very sick. The vaccine is the safest, most effective defense against it. The biggest misconception about the shot or nasal spray is the belief that it can give you a full-fledged case of the “flu.” It is simply not possible to get seriously sick from the flu shot because it contains just a piece of the germ. It can cause your arm to be sore, and that can lead to general achiness, but that’s it And the nasal spray is a weakened form of the virus, which may cause mild, flu-like symptoms, but nothing as serious as an actual case of influenza. It’s possible to catch a cold at the same time that you get the flu shot or the nasal spray, but that’s just a coincidence. And yet, there are limitations with the vaccine: It only wards off influenza, not other winter viruses, and it takes two weeks to build up protection. Nonetheless, I think a vaccination is very important.
Limit Exposure. One way to avoid sickness is to avoid sick people because illness-causing germs are spread through touching contaminated surfaces or through the air. People stay indoors because they are afraid of catching a cold from the cold air, but it’s staying indoors where the people—and germs—are that poses the bigger threat. That’s why it’s important that when you are sick to stay home from work and keep clear of well-populated places.
Healthy Living. I like to tell my patients that the body is like a race car: A race car won’t perform well unless you drive it regularly and give it the right fuel. A healthy lifestyle, eating fruits and vegetables daily (the right fuel), exercising several times a week (drive it around), and regularly getting a good night’s sleep (don’t overwork the engine) - will keep your immune system strong and better your chances of keeping winter illnesses at bay. Many fruits and vegetables are rich in immune-boosting beta-cartene, vitamin C, and vitamin E. People can take supplements, but be careful about overdoing it because that can be harmful.
There’s little scientific evidence that, vitamins, supplements such as zinc, or over-the-counter cold-fighting medicine will prevent a cold or the “flu,” or even significantly shorten the length of your illness.
If you do get sick, the best thing you can do is drink plenty of liquids and rest. That’s what this doctor orders.
For more treatment tips, go to Kaiser Permanente’s cold and flu website http://mydoctor.kaiserpermanente.org/ncal/coldandflu/.
Randy Bergen, MD, is a pediatrician for Kaiser Permanente, a pediatric infectious-disease specialist, and the clinical lead for Kaiser Permanente Northern California’s flu vaccination program.