It’s cold and flu season yet again, and time to review the simple steps can we all take to avoid these inevitable illnesses. This year’s flu season is a bit more newsworthy than usual as H7N9 bird flu continues to pose a potential threat. But it doesn’t change much how to protect yourselves from this or any other flu, except for a few obvious warnings to avoid touching raw poultry, petting zoos and other basics.
The most common sense preventive measure is hand washing. This is a crucial, simple idea that has been proven for almost 200 years, ever since Dr Lister proved that hand washing with antiseptic dramatically cut down on surgical infections (be thankful you didn’t live back then!). Simple soap and water does the trick — but I also like the alcohol gels as they work quicker and wipe out a much larger percentage of viruses and bacteria than soap.
Another interesting idea is daily gargling, with simple salt water, during the entire winter season. People who gargle up to three times a day have a 40% decrease in respiratory illness and symptoms during the winter. Gargling also is a simple way to help improve sore throat pain and swelling, and it also loosens up mucus.
Another method with good evidence for prevention is a daily supplement of vitamin D, for all ages, during the entire winter season. Daily year-round doses of vitamin D (400 IU for children) are recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Studies show that schoolkids who took a higher dose of vitamin D during flu season had a 42% decrease in influenza infections. I also recommend vitamin D for adults daily here in Beijing, certainly in the winter months and probably all year, as the air pollution cuts down on the needed sunlight that hits our skin and creates vitamin D.
Simply getting a good night’s sleep can also decrease your risk of infections. People who sleep only 6-7 hours a night are three times more likely to get cold symptoms than those who have 8 or more hours of sleep. Proper sleep is crucial for our immune system. Perhaps those of you who feel you “always get colds in Beijing” should check into your sleep patterns!
Many of us try herbal treatments to prevent colds, and you can find good data on effective prevention from the Natural Medicines Database at http://tinyurl.com/bvalz5. Their highest level of support is American ginseng, listed as “possibly safe and effective”. Garlic, ALA, lactobacillus and others have “insufficient evidence”. You will probably be surprised to find that the most commonly used preventive medicines such as echinacea, vitamin C and zinc all are considered “possibly ineffective”.
And of course I must mention the flu vaccine, which is officially indicated for anyone, healthy or sick, after six months of age. It’s not 100% effective for many people, but I feel the benefits far outweigh the risks. Those of you with any contact with newborns and infants under six months of age should seriously consider getting the vaccine for yourselves, as those infants are most vulnerable to the flu, and they are not eligible for the vaccine.
Don’t forget the basic steps for a healthy immune system, via exercising, a good diet full of antioxidants, and not smoking!
This article was initially published in my monthly Beijingkids column.