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Linda Winters     Linda Winters
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The Sick Sense:
Tips for Remaining Flu-Free During the Holidays

The Sick Sense: - Tips for Remaining Flu-Free During the Holidays

With so much of our attention focused on the holidays, it's easy to lose sight of the "other" winter equinox. Specifically the period between November and March, or what the Centers for Disease Control refer to as flu season. During this time, Americans' chances of contracting the illness will increase by as much as 80%. Upon learning this, the staff here at YOU Magazine felt compelled to help even the playing field.

But, before we give out our advice for foiling the flu, it's important to realize the nature of the illness, as well as how it spreads. The flu is a contagious respiratory illness that is caused by the influenza virus. While the common cold is also a virus, and it carries many of the same symptoms as the flu, its effects are generally less severe. In addition, a cold typically doesn't have the same potential complications. Pneumonia, infection, dehydration, and the worsening of existing medical conditions – such as asthma and diabetes – are just a few examples.

Every year, anywhere from 5% - 20% of our country's population contracts the flu. Over 200,000 of us are hospitalized because of it, and roughly 36,000 actually die from it. With numbers this alarming, you can understand why it's important to educate yourself.

The flu virus is most commonly transmitted in one of two ways. The first is by inhaling saliva particles left behind by a sneeze or a cough from someone who is infected. The second, more common way is via hand-to-hand (or hand-to-object) contact. Now that we know how it's contracted, let's examine how you can protect yourself this winter.

Some Hand-y Advice
Since our hands play a big role in how we catch the flu, we'd be remiss not to make them the primary focus of our battle. To begin with, you can reduce your chances of contracting the virus by as much as 45% by simply washing your hands at least 5 times a day. This is especially true after any visits to public places (e.g., gyms, shopping malls, public transportation, etc.)

We suggest using a hand soap that is NOT antibacterial. Many studies have shown that antibacterial soap is no better at killing harmful bacteria than regular soap. This is mostly due to the amount of time needed for the antibacterial agent(s) to be effective. Most people simply don't wash their hands long enough for this to happen. Some scientists also theorize that any bacteria left behind after washing with this type of soap build up a resistance to the antibacterial agents.

When washing your hands, nothing beats a thorough cleaning using warm water, heavy friction, and soap. Give your hands a good rinse and then wash them a second time. It is also recommended that you dry off with a disposable paper towel, as cloth towels are a breeding ground for germs.

When washing your hands in a public restroom, it is advisable to take 2 paper towels from the dispenser; one for turning off the faucet and the other for drying and using as a barrier between your clean hands and the door handle when exiting. It may sound hard to believe, but many people never wash their hands, even when using a public restroom.

Now that your hands are clean, there are a few more things you'll want to do. First, limit the contact between your hands and face, especially the mouth, nose, and eyes, as these areas are major portals for transferring the bacteria on your hands into your body. If you must touch your face (i.e., scratch your nose or rub your eyes), do so with the backs of your knuckles, as they typically contain much less bacteria than your fingertips.

In the spirit of keeping your hands out of your face, stay away from any "communal" food. A bowl of popcorn at a bar, a basket of chips at a party, and a plate of cookies in the office breakroom all fall into this category. You'd be surprised at the bacteria typically found on these types of foods.

One last bit of advice is regarding the use of hand sanitizers. Starting with the good news, they are a great item to keep in your car's glove box or your purse, especially when you're at a location where washing your hands is not an option. The bad news is they are not a great substitute for the regular washing of your hands.

Many of these sanitizers don't contain enough alcohol to kill certain bacteria. The other problem is that overuse of these products can lead to some very dry skin. We suggest using them only when necessary. Before applying the sanitizer, rub your hands together vigorously for at least one minute. This will help to break up most of the cold and flu germs. After using the sanitizer, apply a little moisturizing lotion to keep your hands from drying out.

Cleanliness Equals Healthiness
One of the worst practices in terms of spreading germs is using your hands to cover your mouth when sneezing or coughing. Germs cling to bare hands and are easily passed back and forth. If you feel a sneeze or a cough coming on, it is much better to turn your head away from the people around you and cough into the air.

Let's talk about facial tissues for a moment. While it's a great idea to keep plenty on hand, it is important to remember that individual tissues are not meant for multiple uses. Use them once and throw them away. Keeping used tissues in your pocket or leaving them lying around your home is a great way to spread germs.

During flu season, it is imperative that you practice due diligence in keeping your household surfaces clean. Telephones, computer keyboards, countertops, light switches, remote controls, and doorknobs are all great places for germs to hide.

Your toothbrush is a virtual breeding ground for germs, so be sure to replace it on a regular basis. We also recommend storing it in hydrogen peroxide. If you do so, it's extremely important to rinse it thoroughly under running water prior to brushing your teeth. Another method for ridding your toothbrush of germs is to pop it in the microwave for 10 seconds before you brush.

Maintaining Your Immune System
Another key to remaining flu-free involves maintaining your overall health and keeping your immune system strong. In that spirit, we'll begin by saying that you must learn to listen to your body. From eating and exercising to relaxing and sleeping, your body has the ability to tell you what it needs and when it needs it. The hard part is responding properly to its requests.

Our first bit of advice is to keep your body hydrated by drinking plenty of water. The average adult needs to drink a minimum of eight, 8-ounce glasses a day to achieve the proper level of hydration. Doing so will help to keep your system flushed of various toxins.

As you increase your intake of H2O, you'll also want to decrease your alcohol consumption. Alcohol suppresses the immune system on many levels. It's also notorious for dehydrating the body.

Everyone knows that smoking cigarettes is bad for your health, but did you know that regular smokers have a higher rate of sickness than non-smokers? Statistics also show that when a smoker contracts either a cold or the flu, the effects are more severe than for a non-smoker.

The reasons for this are very simple. Cigarette smoke dries out nasal passages as well as paralyzes cilia, the tiny hairs that line the membranes of the lungs and nose. The wavelike movement of cilia helps to sweep viruses from the body. It is estimated that one cigarette can paralyze cilia for up to 30 minutes.

Our next piece of advice is to get your exercise! Aside from the obvious reasons, aerobic exercise causes your heart to pump larger quantities of blood at a faster rate. In turn, your breathing rate increases in order to transfer oxygen from the lungs to your blood. The end result is that you sweat. This process has been shown to increase virus-killing cells within the body.

Eat a balanced and healthy diet. Once again, it sounds obvious but a diet consisting of natural, whole foods plays a huge part in maintaining general health. Did you know that the regular consumption of certain food items has actually been shown to reduce colds and flu? Yogurt and garlic are two in particular. Any vegetables or fruits that are dark green, red, or yellow in color should also be a part of your normal repertoire, as they are chock full of phytochemicals, natural plant chemicals that boost the potency of the vitamins that are in the food you ingest.

Get a flu shot every fall. The CDC recommends this type of shot for anyone who wants to avoid the flu, but you should consult with your doctor to see if it's right for you.

Relax and Breathe
The following strategies have been shown to cut down on both colds and flu:

  • Get your fill of fresh air every day. Centrally-heated air not only dries out nasal passages, making you more susceptible to viruses, it also circulates germs within the room. If possible, it's a good idea to leave one or two windows in your home slightly opened. This practice will work wonders for keeping germs at bay. At the very least, turn down the heat in your home by 5 degrees.
  • Sit in a sauna at least twice a week. Several studies have shown this practice to cut incidents of colds and flu in half. The theory is that the air inside a sauna is higher than 80 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature too hot for the viruses to survive.

    For those who don't have access to a sauna, a run-of-the-mill hairdryer is a good replacement. Set the hairdryer on warm, hold it 18 inches from your face, and breathe deeply. Do this twice a week for 20 minutes, and you'll reduce your chances of getting sick by 50%.

  • Find activities that will control your stress and help you relax. Study after study has shown that people who experience emotional stress have weakened immune systems and are more likely to succumb to viruses. In turn, it's been shown that relaxation causes interleukins – the hormones within your immune system that fight microbial infection – to increase.

There you have it, our best flu-fighting advice. While very few of you will use all of the tips provided, at least you have a better understanding of how to protect yourself. Avoid unnecessary contact with sources known for bacteria, take the proper precautions when it comes to hygiene, and don't allow your immune system to become weak. Keep that in mind, and there's a good chance you'll stay healthy and have a happier holiday season.

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