Staying healthy, especially during the winter months, is a top priority for many, as this season often brings a surge of illnesses. From the importance of hand hygiene and the efficacy of vaccinations to the benefits of a nutrient-rich diet, there are several strategies to fortify one's defenses against common ailments and prevent the spreading of viruses this holiday season.
What Causes Winter Illness?
Flu season is no urban myth — in cold weather, diseased respiratory particles linger longer in midair, making illnesses like influenza, pneumonia, and the common cold much easier to catch. Viruses thrive in the cold, living much longer and impairing the body’s ability to eliminate mucus, thus trapping them inside. Your living conditions can also play a role in your likelihood of catching an illness in the winter, as staying in enclosed spaces to avoid the harsh weather gives viruses more hosts to infect, and more people get sick.
How Do Viruses Spread?
Viruses are microscopic particles composed of genetic material that infect the cells of a living organism to reproduce. They spread from person to person in a variety of ways, such as respiratory droplets, direct contact (such as kissing somebody or shaking someone’s hand), and are frequently present on surfaces.
Viruses can live up to 9 hours on a surface, including surfaces that people often forget, like your cell phone, remote control, or door handles. Diligent washing of these various surfaces can minimize your chances of contracting a virus and spreading it to other individuals.
How To Avoid Catching Winter Illnesses
Wear A Mask
Respiratory particles are one of the most common ways for viruses to spread. An infected person coughs or sneezes, and in cold weather, those particles live longer in the air. By wearing a mask and covering your mouth and your nose, you minimize the risk of those particles entering your bloodstream. This also prevents any viruses currently infecting you to be spread to others, ensuring their health and safety.
Wearing a mask when out in public this winter, such as at work or while out running errands, can help keep you healthy for your important holiday events and prevent spreading viruses to elderly or otherwise immunocompromised loved ones.
Frequently Wash Your Hands
Washing your hands with soap and water removes and destroys harmful microbes, including viruses, from the skin's surface. Soap molecules break down the lipid membrane of many viruses, rendering them inactive — this is why antibacterial soap is not necessary for preventing spread of viruses, as regular soap works just as well.
Regular and thorough handwashing thus reduces the risk of transmitting infections to oneself and to others. However, many people do not wash their hands properly, or long enough to thoroughly clean their hands. When lathering soap, make sure you are scrubbing the entire surface area and under your fingernails. You must do this for at least 20 seconds, and then rinse thoroughly.
Disinfect Surfaces Regularly
Disinfecting surfaces eliminates viruses, preventing their transmission to people who touch those surfaces. The active ingredients in disinfectants damage or disrupt the vital structures of these pathogens, rendering them non-infectious. Regularly disinfecting commonly-touched surfaces, such as cell phones, light switches, doorknobs, handles, and handrails reduces the potential for viral spread in communal settings.
Maintain Social Distancing
Social distancing involves keeping a safe space between individuals to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. By limiting close physical contact, the transmission of pathogens, especially respiratory droplets containing viruses, is reduced. If you are feeling any symptoms of the flu, cold, or another ailment, consider staying home and distancing yourself from parties and other events this winter in order to maintain the safety of those around you. When out in public, give people space and prevent close contact with strangers who may be symptomatic.
Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle
Keeping a healthy lifestyle strengthens the immune system, enabling the body to better combat infections. Regular exercise, a balanced diet, adequate sleep, and stress management not only promote overall well-being, but also enhance the body's resilience against diseases and expedite recovery when ill. Additionally, a healthy lifestyle can reduce the risk of chronic diseases, further bolstering one's defenses against opportunistic viruses. If you need advice on how to improve your nutrition, sleep or exercise habits, or stress levels, talk to your physician.
Consider Drinking Less Alcohol
Reducing alcohol consumption can have a positive impact on immune health. Excessive alcohol intake can weaken the immune system, making the body more susceptible to viral infections. By drinking in moderation or abstaining, you can maintain a stronger defense against pathogens and reduce your risk of illness.
Avoid Sharing Personal Items
Not sharing personal items, especially those that come into contact with the face or mouth, is crucial for preventing the spread of viruses. Items like cell phones, toothbrushes, drinking glasses, and makeup can harbor pathogens, transmitting them from person to person. By avoiding sharing these items, individuals can significantly reduce their risk of contracting or spreading illnesses.
Receive Flu Shots, Vaccines, & Other Immunizations
Receiving flu shots and other vaccines strengthens the body's defenses against specific infectious diseases. Vaccines train the immune system to recognize and combat pathogens, reducing the risk of severe illness or transmission to others. Regular immunization not only protects the individual but also contributes to community immunity, protecting vulnerable populations who may not be able to get vaccinated themselves.
Updated Covid vaccines and the flu shot for this winter are now available through your primary care physician or at your local pharmacy.
How To Recover From Winter Illnesses
Infections from influenza, COVID-19, and the common cold all share similar symptoms. These can range from a stuffy nose, a cough and a sore throat to muscle aches, fatigue, and shortness of breath. When experiencing these symptoms, try to isolate yourself for up to 2 weeks in order to ensure that the virus does not spread to others, including potentially vulnerable groups. If symptoms persist for more than 2 weeks, consult with a doctor to make sure your common cold or flu has not become something more serious, such as pneumonia.
Recovering from winter illnesses often requires extra self-care: prioritize adequate sleep to bolster the immune system, drink plenty of fluids like water and herbal teas to stay hydrated, and eat nutrient-dense foods like leafy greens and berries to nourish the body. Over-the-counter remedies can alleviate symptoms, but typically do not treat the illness itself. If the illness lingers or worsens, seeking medical advice is crucial.
Winter illnesses are common, but not unavoidable. Embracing practices like regular handwashing, consuming nutrient-dense foods, and staying updated with vaccinations can significantly enhance one's resilience against diseases. If you're seeking personalized medical attention and proactive care, consider enlisting the services of Devine Concierge Medicine to prioritize your health year-round.