Story last updated at 11/4/2009 - 12:22 pm
Over the past few months, there's been a lot of noise about the upcoming cold season and the "swine" flu, also known as the H1N1virus. Experts advise washing your hands thoroughly and often, sneezing into your sleeve or crook of your arm (not your hands), keeping your hands away from your face, and staying home if you do get ill so that the virus is contained and not spread. I've wondered if there are more action steps that can be taken in addition to or other than getting a flu shot. A visit to the Web site WebMD (http://www.webmd.com) provided doctors' tips for avoiding nasty cold and flu germs.
1. Wash your hands
Not surprisingly, the doctors' number one tip is to wash your hands, as it is a proven method for preventing infections. One pediatrician noted that he washed his hands 40 to 50 times a day. What's the best method? Use warm water and soap, and suds up for 20 seconds (about the time it takes to sing "Happy Birthday" twice through). If in a public restroom, dry hands with a paper towel and use the same towel to turn off the faucet and open the door.
No matter how clean your hands may be, keep them away from your nose and mouth. Another doctor cautioned keeping your hands away from food as well. Eat foods that require a fork or spoon instead of a sandwich. If you do eat a sandwich, wrap it in a napkin to keep from touching the bread.
2. Exercise for immunity
Exercise strengthens your heart and builds your immune system. Twenty to thirty minutes of cardio every day may prevent you from getting sick. What about exercise if you're already sick? According to the article, if your symptoms are above the neck (stuffy nose, sneezing), then exercise is fine. Forego the exercise if you are experiencing a fever higher than 100 degrees, a cough, or chills. Of course, with those symptoms, the last thing you'll feel like doing is exercising!
3. Herbal medicines and other remedies
Some of the doctors reported using natural remedies such as Echinacea and goldenseal because they help boost the immune system and fight off microbes. It should be noted that studies haven't found much evidence that Echinacea prevents infections, but some of its extracts may help you feel better if you are already sick.
Zinc lozenges were mentioned as useful in shortening the duration and reducing the severity of cold. Again, some studies have found the evidence isn't strong enough yet to recommend it.
A note of caution when taking herbal remedies: Check with your doctor first as herbal medicine can have side effects. More importantly, herbal remedies may interfere with medicines you're already taking.
4. Vitamin C
Increasing daily dosages of Vitamin C is another strategy used by many but not wholly endorsed by some doctors. According to the latest research, vitamin C doesn't make a cold shorter or less severe. Although some doctors claim that it may help ward off germs if you've been exposed to physical or environmental stress. If you do choose to add more vitamin C to your diet, an extra 500 milligrams a day is about all you need.
Did you know that acupuncture has been shown to boost your immune system? I sure didn't! This ancient Chinese medical tradition used to stimulate body pressure points has been used to treat everything from headaches to arthritis. One proponent praised the use of acupuncture on a regular basis and increasing the frequency of sessions when feeling sick. Acupuncture has few negative side effects so it may be worth a try.
The bottom line, as you may well guess, is prevention. A flu shot may be your best bet at this time of year, especially if you are susceptible to colds and the flu. The doctors interviewed in this article stressed staying in the best possible health year-round by doing the basics: eat right, get the right amount of sleep for you (that may mean sleeping more than 8 hours), exercise every day, and wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands.
The full article, Preventing Cold & Flu: How Doctors Keep Germs at Bay, by Stephanie Watson, can be accessed at the webmd.com website.
Sonja Koukel, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Health, Home & Family Development Program for the Cooperative Extension Service UAF Juneau District. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (907) 796-6221.