Doc’s Corner

How to Avoid Catching a Cold or Flu During the Holidays
Do you fear becoming ill with a cold or flu this winter, especially during the holidays? Are you aware that you can significantly reduce your risk of coming down with an illness this winter? The best way to minimize your risk of getting sick is to be aware of factors that increase your risk and then use this knowledge to strategically minimize the risk and hope for a bit of luck as well.
Cold weather brings with it the threat of more frequent colds. No doubt, you hear more people sneezing, sniffling, and coughing when the temperatures drop. Even worse, flu makes its rounds as the temperatures drop as well, leading to a loss of productivity and income.

Who has time for colds and flu? The reality is that the average adult gets between two and four colds per year, more often in the fall and winter, whereas kids, due to their less mature immune system, get between five and ten.

Have you ever wondered why colds are more common in cold weather? You may have heard that colds spread more easily in the winter because people spend more time indoors and that’s one reason colds inflict more people when the temperatures drop. But does the cold weather itself, shivering outdoors on a cold, winter day, also increase the risk of succumbing to a cold virus?

Those Pesky Cold Viruses

Cold viruses are of several different types. In fact, over 200 viruses have been linked with the common cold. The most common is a group of viruses called rhinoviruses. These sneaky viruses are naturally drawn to the mucous membranes of your nose and throat where they proliferate and set up an infection. Rhinoviruses are responsible for about half of all colds. Other cold-causing viruses are coronaviruses and parainfluenza viruses.

Surprisingly, up to 30% of all colds may be caused by viruses we haven’t identified yet. Needless to say, all of these viruses are inconvenient to have. Fortunately, few people die from the common cold. Despite their relatively benign course, we’d like to avoid getting one if at all possible. Can staying warm help you prevent one?

Does Exposure to Cold Air Increase the Odds of Catching a Cold?

As mentioned, colds are caused by viruses, and rhinoviruses are the most common cause of a cold. Studies looking at replication of rhinoviruses in mice shows this virus that causes the sniffles and sneezes replicates fastest at a temperature of around 91.4 degrees F, well below the average body temperature of 98.6 degrees F. So, if you step out into a cold environment, your body temperature drops and it creates conditions that are favorable for rhinoviruses to gain a foothold in the mucous membranes of your nasal passages and throat.

Of course, your immune system helps protect you against the rhinovirus but studies show that the immune system doesn’t fight off these viruses as effectively when your body temperature drops. Your immune system functions best in a warm, toasty environment and when you get chilled, your immune system loses some of its ability to fight viruses. Another study published in the journal Viruses found that low temperature AND low humidity in the air boost the ability of rhinoviruses to proliferate and cause a cold. So, it’s not an old wives’ tale that getting cold increases the risk of catching a cold.

What Can You Do to Prevent a Cold?

Naturally, you’d like to know how to prevent the common cold. There’s not a surefire way to do that but, based on the research, reducing exposure to cold and changes in temperature from warm to cold may help. So, take action! When you go outside on a cold day, wrap a scarf around your lower face to reduce heat loss through your mucous membranes. Since low humidity is a factor too, make sure to drink enough water to stay well hydrated. You may also wish to add a humidifier to your home, especially your sleeping area if you live in a dry environment. Humidity levels drop in the winter and you’re fighting both cold and low humidity. (Make sure to clean humidifiers daily if used).

In one study, looking at influenza viruses, another type of respiratory virus that makes its mark in the fall and winter, researchers found that raising the humidity level to 43% or higher deactivated 86% of airborne virus particles. When the air is saturated with water, it reduces the transmission of cold viruses. So, don’t let your home or office become too dry and monitor the color of your urine to ensure adequate hydration.

Are there other ways to ward off colds this winter? Since you need a healthy immune system to fight off cold and flu viruses, make sure you’re eating a nutritious, balanced diet with lots of fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables contain phytochemicals that help balance your immune system as well as vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant vitamin. Although there’s no strong evidence that supplementing with vitamin C prevents colds, some studies show it shortens their duration by a day or so. Finally, check your vitamin D level. Vitamin D is important for healthy immune function. One study found that taking a vitamin D supplement was linked with a 12% reduction in the incidence of colds. Remember, in the winter, you get less direct sunlight and it’s harder to keep your vitamin D level up.

Keep up with your daily exercise routine, even during the busy holidays to maintain an active immune response. Adequate rest and sleep is essential to keeping you immune system intact. It is not prudent to take “short cuts” regarding your health because of busyness only to have your schedule disrupted by illness.

Of course, you should also remember additional common-sense stuff. Cold viruses spread very easily. In fact, a study carried out by the University of Virginia looked at how long rhinoviruses, a type of cold virus, remain capable of infecting humans. Surprisingly, they found that the virus from infected individuals remained capable of spreading for longer than expected. They were able to isolate active virus from the items the participants touched for up to a day afterward. So, avoid sick people, particularly touching surfaces they’ve touched, and wash your hands often. Washing hands with soap and water for 20 seconds frequently and drying with a paper towel can not be over emphasized.

The Bottom Line

Colds and flu are a nuisance and it’s better to avoid them than to treat one after its gained a foothold. Yes, cold weather and the crowds during the holidays may increase your risk of catching a cold and humidity is a factor as well. Bundle up when you go outside and cover your nose when possible. Make sure the indoor areas where you spend time have a humidity of 43% or higher. Maximize a strong immune response when exposure occurs. Obtain an annual flu shot in the fall. Do not lose focus of practicing a healthy life style that includes adequate sleep, regular exercise, nutritious food, avoid excessive alcohol and minimize stress through proper exercise of spiritual focus. Refer back to the October 2017 Elite Fitness Plus Newsletter for 10 Ways to Stop Stress.
Best wishes for happy and healthy holidays!
Paul R. Block, MD, FACP, FCCP

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