With the intense level of flu that we have already seen across the U.S. in 2013, experts are describing it as one the worst flu seasons in a decade. That being said, there is some good news about this year’s flu season, as well. While the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to report that “influenza activity remains elevated across most of the country,” they are also reporting that “there is an overall downward trend in activity” and that “it’s likely that influenza-like-illness (ILI) has peaked.
Whether we are at the peak of cold and flu season or not, it is still a good idea to know the top ways to prevent the cold and flu. This particular article is entitled “How Doctors Avoid the Cold and Flu.” For your own well being and the good of your family and coworkers, please take a few minutes and review these tips to staying healthy this cold and flu season.
Wash your hands to keep germs away
The advice you’ve probably heard dozens of times from your doctor — wash your hands throughout the day — really does prevent infections, and all the doctors cited in this article said they do it religiously. “I wash my hands or use a hand sanitizer before and after every patient,” says Christopher Tolcher, MD, a pediatrician in the Los Angeles area and clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine in Los Angeles. “I probably wash my hands 40 to 50 times a day.”
No matter how clean they may be, remember this: hands are veritable germ factories, so keep them away from your nose and mouth. Also keep them away from your food during cold and flu season. “I try to bring something I can eat with a spoon or fork, rather than a sandwich I have to handle,” says Sandra Fryhofer, MD, MACP, clinical associate professor at Emory University School of Medicine and a general internist in Atlanta. “If you’re going to eat a sandwich, put a tissue or paper towel around it.”
Keep cold and flu germs off surfaces
Colds and flu are caused by viruses, which can easily pass from person to person, or from surface to person.
“Computer keyboards, telephones, doorknobs, pens that are given to you when you sign for a credit card purchase or in a doctor’s office — all of these are surfaces that have great potential for harboring germs,” says Neil Schachter, MD, professor of medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City and author of The Good Doctor’s Guide to Colds and Flu. “I make it a point of carrying around little bottles of alcohol-based cleansers, and I use them liberally after I suspect that I’ve been exposed,” he says. “I have antiseptic wipes, and I regularly clean my desktop and my phone,” Tolcher says. “I clean my stethoscope and even my pens with alcohol every day.”
Exercise for immunity
A jog around the block a few times a week not only can do wonders for your physique — it also might prevent you from getting sick. “I try to get 20 to 30 minutes of cardio every morning before I go to work,” Fryhofer says. “There’s something about making your heart pump that’s good for your body. It strengthens your heart and strengthens your immune system.”
The research seems to agree — one study found that postmenopausal women who exercised for a year had one-third the colds of women who didn’t work out.
What about exercise if you’re already sick? The general rule is if your symptoms are above the neck (stuffy nose, sneezing), go ahead. But if you have a fever higher than 100 degrees, a cough or chills, hold off on the workout front for a few days until you feel better.
Colds, flus, and herbal medicine
There has been a lot of buzz regarding herbal remedies for preventing and shortening the duration of colds. Although the research on whether they work shows mixed results, some of the doctors agree that they do find relief from natural remedies.
“I use echinacea and goldenseal because they help boost the immune system and fight off microbes,” says Lauren Richter, DO, assistant professor of family and community medicine at the University of Maryland Center for Integrative Medicine. “I like the teas, but a lot of people don’t like the taste, so pills are fine.” One note of caution if you do take herbal remedies: Check with your doctor first. Just because they’re all-natural doesn’t mean they don’t have side effects; for example, some studies have shown that zinc nasal sprays and swabs may reduce your sense of smell. More important, herbal remedies may interfere with medicines you’re already taking.
Does vitamin C help colds?
The jury is out on whether vitamin C can prevent a cold. And according to the latest research, vitamin C doesn’t make a cold shorter or less severe.
Although experts do not recommend upping your dosage for that purpose, some say it may help ward off germs if you’ve been exposed to physical or environmental stress — for example, with especially strenuous exercise or exposure to bitter cold weather.
Even so, some people swear by it. “I have some vitamin C in my diet every day, but I bump the dose up when I get sick,” Richter says. “Generally, it will reduce the length of the symptoms by at least a day or two and also will help with the severity,” she says. An extra 500 milligrams a day is about all you need.
Sore throat remedies
When their throats are scratchy and raw, doctors often find relief from items stocked in their pantry and fridge. “I’m a big believer in herbal tea with honey and lemon,” Fryhofer says. “It’s easy to get down because it’s warm and comforting.” Honey may also help if you have a cough. One study showed that buckwheat honey relieved children’s coughs even better than the cough suppressant dextromethorphan.
Chicken soup for colds and flu
Doctors say they use over-the-counter decongestants and antihistamines only when their symptoms are severe and even then only sparingly. Many prefer natural alternatives, such as saline (salt and water) solution, which helps clear out nasal mucus.
Grandma’s good old-fashioned “penicillin” is another great soother of stuffed noses. “I’ve enjoyed chicken soup for years,” says Schachter. “The vapor alone clears nasal passages and relieves the throbbing in the sinuses.” Recently researchers have discovered what grandmothers have suspected all along — that the ingredients in chicken soup (including the chicken stock, carrot, onion, and celery) might actually have a medicinal effect on the body’s immune system, easing the inflammation caused by cold viruses.
Over-the-counter medications for colds and flus
These doctors agree; when they’re feeling really awful, they turn to over-the-counter pain relievers. “The thing that I take most regularly is Tylenol, aspirin, or Advil,” Schachter says. “It’s that sick feeling — that achy, blah feeling you have when you get sick — that really bothers me.”
While cold and flu remedies can ease the most severe symptoms, many doctors say they avoid overmedicating themselves. “I don’t like the feeling of taking a lot of medication, where my head feels fuzzy,” Hughes says.
When she feels sick enough to need a cold remedy, Bothwell buys them individually, taking acetaminophen for a fever and a cough suppressant for a cough, instead of a multisymptom cold and flu medication. Bothwell also chooses generics over the brand-name varieties. “One of my pet peeves is spending so much money on these cold preparations,” she says. “Sometimes those combination drugs give you a lot more medicine than you need, and they’re more expensive.”
Prevention is the key. Our experts all say a flu shot is essential and they advise staying in the best possible health year-round. “Do the basics — eat right, sleep right, exercise, and wash your hands,” Richter says. “I work in a pretty high-risk profession, and I rarely get sick because I do those things.”