No need to go into hiding: These research-proven strategies will protect you at the office, on planes, and in crowded malls. ‘Tis the season…for colds, flu, stomach bugs, and all those other ills that spread when people come together — whether by choice (at holiday parties) or circumstance (on airplanes). But don’t start calculating your sick days just yet. This year you can do more than wash your hands and cross your fingers. Recent research, some of it sparked by the scary H1N1 influenza pandemic of 2009, has uncovered new steps you can take to protect yourself and your family. Most of these tactics are targeted at specific settings as scientists tease out what will safeguard you at the food court, for example, versus what works to bolster everyday immunity. Here’s what to try — and when and where to use it — to get through the holidays without sneezes, tummy aches, or flat-out-in-bed flu.
- Pop a vitamin D supplement at breakfast. In a Yale medical school study, adults with high blood levels of vitamin D (at least 38 nanograms per milliliter) were 49 per cent less likely to get a cold or other infection of the upper respiratory tract during the fall and winter of 2009 through 2010. Vitamin D boosts the ability of immune cells lining your lungs to fight off viruses. But without taking a supplement, it’s hard to bring your blood levels into the range that’s likely to increase resistance to viruses, says Michael F. Holick, M.D., Ph.D., professor of medicine, physiology, and biophysics at Boston University School of Medicine. Dr. Holick recently chaired a task force on the topic for the Endocrine Society, which issued the guideline of at least 1,500 to 2,000 IU of vitamin D daily for adults. It’s a dose that you can safely take in addition to popping a multi-vitamin containing D and drinking fortified milk, he says.
- Clean with bleach. Noroviruses, the microbes that cause stomach flu, are notoriously resilient, able to live on almost any hard surface for weeks. They also can survive many common household cleaners — except chlorine bleach, say scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). So, beyond enforcing commonsense prevention measures (no sharing drinking glasses, for example), swab hard surfaces with a chlorine solution. “Focus on the most likely areas of contamination, such as bathrooms, but also objects everyone touches often, like doorknobs, remotes, light switches, and phones,” advises Christine L. Moe, Ph.D., professor of global health at Emory University in Atlanta. The bug-killing formula: ½ cup of chlorine bleach in a gallon of water. (Note: Most disinfecting wipes don’t actually contain bleach, and thus won’t knock out noroviruses.)
In addition, launder the patient’s sheets, towels, and clothes frequently, in hot water and bleach if possible. Noroviruses can live on rugs for weeks, as well; to decontaminate if a family member has thrown up on the carpet, steam cleaning appears to be more effective than wet shampooing, an English study reported.
- Sleep at least seven hours a night. A good night’s rest revitalises you and lowers the odds you’ll wake up with a sore throat, cough, and runny nose. In a study at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, participants who logged fewer than seven hours were nearly three times more likely to come down with a cold than those who got more rest.
Too little sleep triggers a drop in the activity of your immune system’s natural killer cells — a falloff of as much as 30 per cent , a study from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm suggests. “Killer cells are one of your body’s first defenses against cold and flu viruses — they keep an infection under control until it can be eliminated by more targeted types of immune cells,” explains lead researcher Elinor Fondell, Ph.D.
- Keep zinc lozenges in your desk drawer. If you start sucking on these as soon as you feel the first sniffle (that’s why you want the lozenges at hand), your cold will be shorter and less severe, new research has found. But in order to reap the benefit, you need the right formula, which gets a little tricky. In a review study from Finland, lozenges that provide at least 75 mg a day of zinc reduced the length of a cold by up to 42 per cent, while lower doses had no effect on symptoms. To get a high enough dose (based on the milligrams of ions that are actually released), you’ll need to suck on 10 lozenges a day. You may want to keep taking them for one to two weeks, the treatment time used in most studies. The main side effect you can expect: a bad taste, which goes away once you stop taking the lozenges.
- Steer clear of coughers. In a German study, guests who hugged, kissed, or just talked with a sick teenager — before she started to cough or show other symptoms of the H1N1 virus — didn’t catch it from her. What’s more, even after the girl developed symptoms, such as fever and coughing, only those participants who chatted with her for 15 minutes or longer or who kissed her got infected.
This isn’t the only study to suggest that you don’t need to be overly fearful of “silent spreaders”: When a team of researchers from the University of Hong Kong, Harvard University, and the CDC followed more than a thousand men and women during the 2008 flu season, the scientists estimated that only 1 per cent to 8 per cent caught the virus from people without symptoms. So don’t skip holiday parties, but if a guest is coughing or seems feverish or is complaining of a sore throat, cut your conversation short and blow a friendly kiss as you move on.
- Suds up before hitting the food court. The sanitising hand goop in the dispenser at the food court (or in your purse) does a good job of killing bacteria and seasonal viruses like those that cause colds and flu. But it hardly makes a dent against the noroviruses that cause the stomach flu. In studies at Emory, hand sanitizers with 62 per cent or 63 per cent alcohol (the amount in most major brands, such as Purell, Infectigard, and Germ-X) killed only a fraction of noroviruses. Even products with alcohol content of up to 95 per cent failed to wipe them all out. But the Emory research did suggest an effective tactic against these resilient bugs: physically forcing the virus off your hands with the help of running water. Dampen your hands, soap them, and rub together for 20 seconds (about as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice), then rinse with warm running water. Just be sure to use a paper towel to shut off the faucet and to turn the doorknob on the restroom door after washing. That way, your hands will be norovirus-free when you grab hold of your burger, fries, or slice.
- Keep nasal passages moisturised. An analysis of more than 1,100 airline passengers several years ago found that you are 23 times more likely to catch a cold on a plane than during normal daily life on the ground. The culprit is probably the low humidity typical of aircraft cabins: It dries out the sticky mucus in your nose, compromising its ability to trap and eliminate viruses, says study coauthor Martin B. Hocking, Ph.D., professor emeritus of environmental chemistry at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Moreover, most cold-causing viruses survive better when humidity is low, increasing the chance that a virus will spread from passenger to passenger. (Recirculated air in a plane isn’t to blame: A University of California, San Francisco, study found passengers were just as likely to experience cold symptoms if the cabin contained fresh air.)
There’s no proven way to lower your risk when flying, but products that combat the drying out of nasal passages may help, especially during flights lasting more than two hours, says Hocking. Some to try: saline nasal drops, sprays, or gels, or moisturising nasal swabs. At the very least, they’ll help you breathe more comfortably, preventing nasal crusting, itching, and congestion. n Source : Good Housekeeping