Sit me down right next to someone who is hacking away and feverish with sweat – with no escape route available – and I’ll be fine in the days to come…right?
Well, not necessarily. Even catching an illness can’t always be blamed on the obvious offenders. Influenza, or the flu, typically is transmitted through the air by coughs or sneezes, creating an aerosol that contains the virus.
It can also be transmitted by direct contact with nasal secretions, or through contact with contaminated surfaces. So if someone has blown their nose, they could have it on their hands and spread it when touching elevator buttons, hand railings and so on. Viruses can stick around on surfaces like cashier pens and ATMs for 48 hours.
To boot, the flu can be serious, especially for seniors who have aging immune systems that aren’t able to strong arm the virus. Flu can lead to pneumonia, which can be deadly.
That’s why I’m always nagging my parents to make sure they’re taking extra care of themselves at this time of year – sometimes you have to nag! “Dad, don’t you think you could put down the newspaper and get outside for a quick walk in the morning?” “Mom, I know you said you don’t have a big appetite, but are you eating enough for lunch? You need to eat!”
So if you think you’re ready for flu season, give it some serious consideration. I know I am. It’s more than just getting the flu shot. In fact, there are certain signs you might be surprised about that could disable your immune system, sabotaging your ability to fight off the flu and stay healthy. Here are four you need to know:
1. You have a sweet tooth.
Cakes, cookies and chocolate might tempt you at every turn this time of year. Or you may be like me and have a stash of chocolate-covered almonds (almonds are healthy, right?) in the glove compartment of your car, just because.
Well, eating too much sugar is a common habit, but it doesn’t just pack on pounds and spike your blood sugar. It can do a number on your immune system, a key player in how your body kicks infection to the curb.
A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that eating 100 grams of sugar – found in three cans of soda – significantly hobbled the ability of white blood cells to kill bacteria for up to five hours afterward. At the height of immune suppression, about two hours after consuming sugar, this important function of white blood cells was lowered by as much as 50 percent. No one wants that in flu season!
I used to think we all got the flu in January because we visited friends and family during the holidays and were exposed to a lot more germs. Now I realize our immune systems were suppressed by all the sweets that we were eating. I would never turn down homemade eggnog, but I’m going to be a lot more careful this year.
In the study, even fresh-squeezed orange juice partially paralyzed the white blood cells, so it’s not just the sweets. Fruit juice is a concentrated natural sugar bomb (including the unsweetened, not from concentrate options); you’re always better off to eat the fruit itself with all of its healthy fiber and nutrients.
What to do? Be mindful, especially at a time when the holiday shortbread is flowing. Limit the amount of sweet food you eat and really enjoy the ones you choose to indulge in. Eat them slowly, making every bite last. Another good tip is to learn to enjoy the smell of sweets without having to eat them. Walk into a bakery for a good aromatic fix and then make a quick exit before you decide to buy.
Got a party to go to? I’ve known about this strategy for years, but seldom put it into practice: Always eat a wholesome meal before you head out. You just won’t experience the cravings as much. I’m always anticipating great party food, but I know my immune system will benefit if I eat well beforehand.
For your daily routine, try to plan and prep your meals, too, so you won’t be tempted to dip into the cookie jar to nix your hunger.
2. Your nose is dry.
It may not always be comfortable, but a runny nose is a good defense against the flu. That’s because mucus traps viruses and clears them from the body. If your nasal passages are too dry, germs have an easier time getting in and taking hold.
If the dryness is only temporary, you can irrigate your nasal passages with a squeeze bottle of saltwater solution or a neti pot, a container used to rinse your nasal cavity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends using bottled water that has been distilled or sterilized, or tap water that’s been filtered or boiled for several minutes and then left to cool.
A humidifier can also help. Scientists say very humid air might be toxic to flu viruses because the droplets that contain the virus shrink quickly in arid environments, allowing them to float around longer. While you won’t even realize it’s happening, moist air should keep those droplets heavy so they fall to the floor faster. Look for a humidifier that keeps the humidity level between 40 and 60 percent.
If dryness is a chronic problem, though, make an appointment with your doctor to determine the underlying cause.
3. You don’t drink enough.
You’ve likely been told to have plenty of fluids when you’re sick. What’s more soothing than homemade broth with some rice and vegetables? There’s a good reason for the hydration. Your body needs plenty of water to flush out toxins.
This can work to your benefit when you’re healthy, to keep flushing out the unwanted, unusable stuff and boost the immune system, so make fluid intake a regular priority.
Coffee and tea, too, are acceptable sources, but limit those with caffeine because too much can be dehydrating.
While eight glasses is a guide, how much fluid you should drink daily varies from person to person. Basically, you’re drinking the right amount if your urine is pale yellow.
4. You drink well water.
Sure, we take our drinking water for granted. We don’t live in developing countries where we have to worry about drought and famine and lugging containers of water for miles to our home cooking pot. We turn on the tap, plain and simple.
But the cleanliness of your drinking water can and does play a role in whether or not you get sick. Many experts say that as many as 25 million Americans drink well water that contains more than the safe levels of arsenic determined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The EPA regulates public water supply systems, but does not have any authority to regulate private drinking wells, although some state or local governments have rules to protect people who use wells. They don’t have experts making regular checks on the water’s source and quality, so residents need to make sure their water is tested for safety.
Most arsenic enters water supplies either from natural deposits in the earth or from industrial and agricultural pollution. The problem is, arsenic has been linked to several cancers, and affects the immune response to swine flu.
Researchers from the Marine Biological Laboratory and DartmouthMedicalSchool inoculated two groups of mice with the H1N1 virus. The group that had spent five weeks drinking water tainted by arsenic developed suppressed immune systems, and many died. The mice that didn’t drink the water got the flu but fully recovered.
How can arsenic be so lethal? It doesn’t build up in the body over a lifetime like other toxic metals such as lead and mercury, researchers say. In fact, it goes right through us like table salt. For health consequences, arsenic requires ongoing exposure over the long run, such as drinking water.
So have your well water tested. If there’s concern over contamination, you could consider bottled water or installing a remediation system to remove the arsenic.
These are signs that suggest you may be vulnerable to the flu, which can bring an onslaught of nausea, fatigue, fever, chills, cough, runny nose and more. Why not do all you can to lower your risk? I know I’m on board – and I’ll make sure my family is, too.
Karen Hawthorne is managing editor at Health eTalk and BelMarraHealth.com. Karen has worked for the National Post, Postmedia News, CBC Radio Vancouver, the Edmonton Journal, the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and the Cobourg Daily Star, reporting on health news and lifestyle trends for over 15 years.