Q: [All Ages] What are some tips for keeping my family healthy during holiday stress and flu season?
A: The winter months are known for spreading happy holiday cheer, but also unhappy colds and other infections. Viruses like influenza thrive in colder environments. So when large groups of people come together, as with holiday parties and gatherings, germs are highly likely to spread. Keep the following tips in mind to make your winter months more healthy and happy:
- Keep those hands clean—washing hands after contact with sick people has been shown to be one of the best ways to reduce the spread of infection. Use warm (not overly hot) water, a good amount of soap or hand sanitizer, and teach kids to count to 20 while washing hands. Do be careful with over washing of hands, as damaged or broken skin can become infected.
- Keep those mouths clean—don’t hesitate to replace toothbrushes or pacifiers after the start of an illness. Forgetting to change toothbrushes after strep throat is one of the most common reasons for the infection to make an immediate comeback. Not sharing cups is an obvious common sense guideline, but amidst crowded holiday parties, borrowing drinks can easily occur. Labels or markers on cups or bottles can reduce risk of accidentally sharing. Try also to limit many fingers using “common containers” by offering individual servings of appetizers or other food choices.
- Get the influenza shot—those who receive the vaccine not only protect themselves, but also reduce the risk of others getting an unwanted holiday or winter gift. While most illness cases are limited to a few annoying days of not feeling well, influenza can lead to hospitalization or even death, often in previously healthy individuals.
- Don’t forget to exercise—getting in a regular workout may not seem the highest priority during busy holiday schedules. Less daylight and colder temperatures may appear to limit outdoor exercise options. Remember that moderate levels of exercise (four-five days a week, 30-45 minutes a day) support a stronger immune system than either no exercise or too much exercise. Don’t let being a couch potato lead to spending more time sick on the couch because of illness.
- Change clothes more often—just as dirty hands can spread infection, so can soiled clothing. Right upon arriving home, immediately changing out of work, school or daycare clothing is a sensible and protective idea.
- Eat to boost your immune system—vitamin C (commonly found in citrus fruits) can be beneficial for fighting infection, as can anti-inflammatory items such as fish oil, flaxseed, ginger and turmeric. Reducing processed foods and high sugar-content foods (can be tough with holiday sweets) can also be good for the immune system.
- Put less emphasis on the Perfect Attendance Award—being the reliable and ever-present employee or student is definitely a desired trait, unless it comes with coughing, sneezing, fever or other less desired items. It is better to possibly miss a few days of school or work than to spread a winter illness to groups of co-workers or fellow students.
- Keep regular bedtimes and good sleep habits—during work or school breaks, adults and kids can get out of usual sleep routines leading to less sleep, which can be a nightmare for the immune system. Younger children who get less than nine to 10 hours of sleep a night and teenagers who get less than eight hours of sleep are at higher risk for both illness and injury.
- Make good choices when sick—in addition to limiting contact with others to reduce illness spread, be careful with medication use. Do not use any over-the-counter medications in younger children without advice from a medical professional. Antibiotics should only be used with medical guidance and only for the specific illness for which they were prescribed. Do not share antibiotics or other medications.
Dr. Chris Koutures is a pediatric and sports medicine specialist who practices at ActiveKidMD in Anaheim Hills. He is a team physician for USA Volleyball, the U.S. Figure Skating Sports Medicine Network, CSUF Intercollegiate Athletics, Chapman University Dance Department, and Orange Lutheran High School.