The Doctor is In

Avoid colds this winter

By Ilana Bragin, M.D.

The bubbes of Eastern Europe, or at least mine, always warn against “catching a cold” — where cold is not just the chilly temperature outside, but a sly villain who attacks mercilessly the minute you step outdoors without being fully ensconced in hat, scarf, gloves and jacket buttoned up marshmallow-man style. While modern science has shown that cold itself doesn’t lodge in our nose and wreak havoc, temperature change and cold weather does tend to throw our immune system off and render us more susceptible to the common cold and the flu — two partners in crime who tend to complicate our otherwise pleasant plans for a warm winter by the fireplace.
With triple-digit temperatures faded to a hazy, hot memory, and a new winter chill in the air, now is the time to arm yourself against the cold and flu season.
Here are some easy tips on preventing the “cold” from visiting you this winter:
1) Hand washing. While not a novel idea, this is probably the most important measure you can take to prevent all infections from spreading. Hand sanitizer can get the job done as well. When choosing hand sanitizers, use an alcohol-based product rather than one with triclosan or benzalkonium chloride. The former has been questionably linked to carcinogens, and the latter has been shown to breed resistance in harmful pathogens. For more effective results, look for at least 60 percent alcohol, and be sure to rub the product on generously and let it air-dry. Although hand hygiene is less protective against influenza, which is airborne, the notorious virus can survive on surfaces for several hours and can then be transmitted when you touch a surface and then touch your face. Be sure to avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth as much as possible, or at least with unclean hands.
2) Consider getting the flu shot. This is particularly important if you are at greater risk for complications (such as the elderly, pregnant women, young children or those with chronic illness). For the first time, the CDC this year recommends the flu shot not just for those listed above, but for everyone over the age of 6 months in whom the vaccine is not contraindicated. The vaccine may be contraindicated in people with egg allergies, those with a history of reactions to past flu vaccines or those with active illness, but ask your doctor if you have any questions. The 2010/2011 flu vaccine will also conveniently include last year’s infamous H1N1 virus, avoiding the need for two separate shots. But even if you’ve already had acquaintance with H1N1, whether by getting the flu or getting the flu shot last year, this year’s vaccine also contains two other flu viruses that are expected to circulate in the air this flu season. Also, try to get your flu shot as early as possible — it takes approximately two weeks to become effective.
3) Make time for your zzzs. The relationship between sleep and overall health is complicated and not entirely understood, but one thing is clear — the relationship is powerful. Not getting enough sleep has been linked to a laundry list of ailments, including colds and flu. A study published last year in the Archives of Internal Medicine quarantined subjects and gave them nasal drops containing rhinovirus, a common cold virus. Those who had less than seven hours of sleep were almost twice as likely to develop a cold. Not only does lack of sleep make us more susceptible to catching colds and the flu, it also hinders our immune system’s response to infections that we’ve already caught.
4) “All you need is love.” Natural signs of affection like cuddling, hugging, kissing, holding hands, even petting your dog, can actually impact your immune system. Human touch triggers a cascade of events inside the body, and has an impact on heart rate, blood pressure and certain mood-altering brain chemicals, as well as your body’s natural immunity. Specific studies are limited, but some have shown that levels of immunoglobulin A, an antibody that helps ward off infections, increase with touch. So schedule in some extra cuddle time with your family to help keep that cold at bay!
5) Cultivate healthy habits. Healthy habits — particularly managing stress, exercising frequently, drinking lots of water, avoiding smoking, and eating a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables — all help keep your body in tip-top shape and aid in maximizing your own natural immunity. Easier said than done, but healthy habits are not only good for your immune system, but benefit just about every “system” we have — so do the best you can to optimize your lifestyle and maybe you’ll have the advantage when fighting all those germs out there.
As for me, my Bubbie’s Eastern European wisdom has taken solid root. I may know better, but in the colder winter days ahead, you’ll still see me bundled up and covering my nose and mouth with a warm scarf — you never know when cold might try and sneak in!
Dr. Ilana Bragin is a primary care physician practicing in Uptown, Dallas, with a focus on preventative health and wellness. She has a firm belief in the power of modern medicine … and matzah ball soup.

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