Whether or not we enjoy and welcome cold weather, it is clear that the winter season is upon us.Whether or not we enjoy and welcome cold weather, it is clear that the winter season is upon us. A hard reality of this time is the potential for illness. As soon as the temperature drops, many of us experience cold and flu symptoms, such as a runny nose, itchy and watery eyes, coughing, sneezing, a sore throat, etc. Although it is a widespread myth that cold weather causes adverse health, it is actually not the low temperature that makes us sick. Disease is due to bacteria and viruses spread between individuals as we spend more time around each other indoors. Therefore, the common cold or flu is most frequently associated with winter months. In order to combat this phenomenon, there are numerous techniques that can be implemented into our everyday routine to prevent the onset of illness and the spread of germs.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the best way to protect against the flu is get vaccinated every year. This is because the flu vaccine is known to prevent influenza in 70-90 percent of healthy people under the age of 65 years old. Two types of vaccines available are the standard “flu shot” and a “nasal-spray flu vaccine”. The flu shot is administered as a virus which is killed and injected into the arm. This shot can be obtained by any individual over the age of six months and is applicable to both healthy and chronically ill patients. Another valid option is a vaccine made by using flu viruses which are weak and do not cause the flu, known as “live attenuated influenza vaccine”. These are available only to healthy patients ages 2-49 and women who are not pregnant. These vaccines all contain three flu viruses which are altered each year based on which viruses are estimated to be most prevalent. As a result of introducing the virus to the body, antibodies develop which provide protection for future infections. However, building up immunity from one strain of virus in the past does not necessarily protect you from being adversely affected by a new strain this year. The changing nature of the virus itself and the variety of species present are why receiving a flu shot is recommended each year.
Although it is advised that every person who would like to reduce his/her chances of acquiring the flu be vaccinated, some groups of the population are particularly susceptible to disease and would benefit from vaccination. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which consists of 15 experts from fields of immunization selected by the Secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services, strongly suggests that the following people receive vaccinations:
- Children aged 6 months – 18 years
- Pregnant women
- People 50 years of age and older
- People of any age with certain chronic medical conditions
- People who live in nursing homes or other long-term care facilities
- People who live with or care for those at high risk for complications from the flu, such as health care workers, household members of patients, and out of home caregivers
It is incumbent on individuals to check with their doctors before opting to receive the vaccine.
Other, less invasive, measures can also be taken to prevent acquisition of communicable diseases. Good health habits are crucial for not only cold weather periods, but basic prevention year-round. These range from observing precautions, such as avoiding close contact with those who are sick, to maintaining a well-balanced lifestyle.
Implementing physical protection is important for yourself and those around you. Defense against the spread of disease is obtained by avoiding those who are sick and staying home when you are ill as well. By performing basic acts, such as covering your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing and avoiding touching your eyes, nose, or mouth, you will help lessen modes of transportation for bacteria and viruses.
Hand Washing, Hand Sanitizers, and Disinfectant
Since the CDC has labeled December 2-8 as National Hand Washing Awareness Week, it is especially fitting that the significance of hand washing be discussed. It has been emphasized that clean hands prevent infections in all arenas of work, school, and home. According to Dr. Judy Daly of WebMD, cold and flu viruses are spread by hands more frequently than through the air. “We unconsciously touch our mouths, noses, and eyes many, many times each day,” states Dr. Daly. “These mucous membranes are welcome mats for cold and flu viruses, which are readily transferred from unclean hands.” The CDC emphasizes that “it is important to remember that in addition to colds, serious diseases – like hepatitis A, meningitis, and infectious diarrhea – can easily be prevented if people make a habit of washing their hands.”
Hand washing is not only prescribed frequently, but particularly before preparing foods, before eating, after changing diapers or using the restroom, and having contact with an ill individual. Proper procedure consists of wetting hands with clean running warm water and applying soap, scrubbing all surfaces for at least 20 seconds, rinsing under running water again, and drying hands thoroughly afterwards.
It has also become common practice to use an alcohol-based sanitizer when soap and water are not available. This is efficient and practical, since it reduces the number of germs on skin and consists of fast-acting agents. Sanitizers have become a convenient, inexpensive, and portable means of disease prevention.
An informative video by Public Health, Grey Bruce Health Unit, demonstrating the proper technique for washing hands and using hand sanitizers may be of use as well.
Shared spaces such as the kitchen and bathroom, door-knobs, and children’s toys should also be cleaned and disinfected regularly to reduce germ transmission.
sleep is crucial for body function. Allowing the body time to recuperate and generate strength at night allows for better performance during the day. Lack of sleep reduces immune function and thereby can make one more susceptible to infection.
Daily exercise recommended by experts of the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association defines the “minimum level of physical activity for maintaining health and lowering the risk of disease in older and younger adults as well as middle-aged adults with chronic conditions” as 30 minutes a day of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity five days per week and at least 20 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity three days a week, or a combination of the two for adults aged 18-65 years.
According to the US Department of Agriculture, handling food safely and preparing it carefully can help prevent diseases. Extra measures should be taken in cases of shopping and cooking raw meat to prevent the growth of bacteria. Also, storing and serving perishable foods promptly will lessen the probability of contamination.
As a benefit, many foods, such as herbs, spices, and fish, contain antioxidants which increase immune function. Natural vitamins present in foods, such as Vitamin C in citrus fruits, help to decrease the duration and severity of colds. Therefore, a well-balanced diet encourages proper system function.
There is no scientific evidence to support that any herbal or homeopathic remedies are effective against cold and flu. Therefore, these can not be used as basis for sound prevention. Studies published from 1960-2003 were reviewed by Gail Mahady, Ph.D., and his colleagues from Karl-Franzens-Universitaet Graz and the University of Illinois. Their work revealed that many popular herbal supplements have not been analyzed in scientific and systematic studies, and therefore no conclusion of health remedy can be made.
Although we are more susceptible to illness these coming months, there are many measures we can take to lower our chances of falling sick. Also, adopting these recommendations into one’s daily routine will help to maintain wellness year-round.