Unless you’ve been fortunate enough to be quarantined in a sterile bunker, you’ve probably heard the news about this year’s flu epidemic – aka Flu Watch 2013. As of this week, flu activity is widespread in 48 states and it’s reportedly the worst one in a decade. In addition, the gastrointestinal nightmare known as norovirus and the biggest outbreak of whooping cough in 50 years are also joining the viral party. So no, it’s not just your imagination, everybody you know really is sick right now. Although wearing a Hazmat Suit and taking long Silkwood showers probably couldn’t hurt, practicing good hand washing hygiene and keeping your immune system strong are the easiest and most practical first lines of defense against viruses. We have at least two long months of flu season to survive, so here are some effective daily strategies to fight those cooties and stay healthy year-round.
FLU SHOT – It’s still not too late. This year’s flu shot appears to be “moderately” effective – 62% effective according to preliminary studies by The Centers for Disease Control (CDC). What does that mean? It means getting the flu shot isn’t a guarantee that you won’t catch the flu, since the vaccine only protects against the strains that the World Health Organization (WHO) predicted would be prevalent this season. Also, there are hundreds of viruses that cause influenza-like symptoms circulating out there. Still, that’s 62% better than nothing. Spot shortages of flu vaccine have been reported throughout the country. So if you the flu shot is available to you, consider yourself lucky, quit your whining and roll up your sleeve. This flu shot finder makes it easier to hunt down the vaccine in your neighborhood.
EXERCISE – Want to boost the effectiveness of that flu shot? Schedule your workout the same day you get your shot! Researchers from the University of Iowa did a study that showed that people who exercised after they got their flu vaccine had double the antibody response, compared to the sedentary control group. Exercise not only jump starts the immune system in general, it also speeds blood circulation throughout the body and spreads the vaccine from the injection site to other parts of the body quicker and more effectively.
But whether or not you’ve had the flu shot, keep working out. Studies have shown that physically fit people get fewer and milder colds in general. Daily exercise reduces your chances of upper respiratory infection by 40% to 50% (almost as good as getting a flu shot!!) by increasing the circulation of white blood cells (the cells that travel through your body to fight infections) to combat viruses and bacteria more efficiently. So exercise not only keeps you looking hot, it prevents you from feeling that dreaded “not-so-hot feeling.” Stress wreaks all sorts of havoc on the immune system by releasing stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. But exercise helps to dissipate those inflammation-causing and immune system-suppressing stress hormones and promotes relaxation by releasing endorphins instead.
SLEEP – Less stress and more relaxation also equals better quality of sleep, which also helps boost immunity. Getting adequate rest (most people need between 7 to 9 hours) is essential to keeping our killer T-cells in fighting shape and reducing the production of cytokines (the proteins that trigger cold symptoms when you’re sick).
SOCIALIZE – This may seem counter-intuitive since people are potential cootie carriers, it’s true. But a social support system is important to greater optimism and avoiding winter depression – which in turn, boosts the immune system. So going to the gym and attending those group exercise classes like Barry’s Bootcamp with your classmates and friends reminds you that enthusiasm and inspiration are also highly contagious. However, if those people are visibly sick, feel free to make them into social pariahs and shun them.
WASH YOUR HANDS – Just remember after all that socializing to wash your hands. Most viruses are spread by direct contact and viruses can survive on surfaces for as long as 48 hours — so lather, rinse and repeat. You know the rule — sing “Happy Birthday to You” two times (to YOURSELF to avoid frightened stares) while you wash your hands. That’s enough time to kill most viruses. If that isn’t convenient, at least use a hand sanitizer. But read that label and check that whatever alcohol it contains, ethyl alcohol, ethanol or isopropanol, is at least 60% of the formula or it won’t be as effective at killing germs.
DON’T TOUCH YOUR FACE – Now would be a great time to stop those nervous nail biting and nasty nose picking habits. Your hands could be a petrie dish of flu viruses, but as long as you don’t touch your face, those viruses don’t have a port of entry. Every time you rub your eye or nose, all you are doing is self-inoculating. So hands off… yourself.
DRINK WATER – All that time spent indoors with the heat cranked up has a drying effect and it’s important to drink extra water to keep your nasal passages, eyes and mouth moist in order to prevent infection. Adequate hydration is essential to all of your bodily functions and optimizing your immune system.
EAT PHYTOCHEMICALS – “Phyto” means plants and there are countless immunity boosting chemicals and vitamins found in fruits, vegetables and grains. These brightly-colored super foods have disease fighting properties that help you fight off infections. Try to eat the rainbow of fruits and veggies and aim for at least five servings daily.
For all you armchair epidemiologists, flu-phobics and hypochondriacs, Google has a pretty cool flu trends tool that tracks flu activity in your area in real time by aggregating search data. If you like lots of pretty colors and charts, this one is worth checking out.
Minsun Park is a blogger, writer and a black belt in taekwondo who gets her ass handed to her daily by her two sons. She’s written for iVillage, SheKnows, ePregnancy and is featured in “The Hot Mom’s Handbook” by Jessica Denay. She can also be found on Facebook and Twitter