Tools, tips, and expert opinions to help you stay on top of your health.
We all know someone who, despite the change of season or bugs going around, seems to never get sick. Are they just lucky, or are they doing something different that helps them remain in good health all year round? Our list of good health habits should keep you fighting fit throughout the winter months.
What actually makes you sick?
Joburg-based medical doctor, Shaun Coppin, says there seems to be no direct link between cold weather and getting sick, as illness is caused by bacteria and viruses. However, he explains that we tend to produce more mucous when we’re cold, and if we become infected, sneezes and coughs transmit micro-organisms even easier. ‘The cold air also helps viruses travelling in liquid particles survive and remain airborne for longer, meaning they’re more easily breathed in,’ he says.
‘Spending more time indoors in close contact with people who may be infected also increases your chances of becoming sick.’
Dr Sihle Asiedu-Darkwah, medical intern at Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital, agrees that the risk of getting sick increases with cold weather, but advises that illness can occur at any time of the year as viruses can also spread through contact with surfaces covered with infectious material (door handles, card machines, and shopping trolleys).
What to wear
Dr Asiedu-Darkwah explains what puts you at higher risk of contracting a cold or flu is the contact of cold air with your respiratory mucous membranes, not your skin. ‘Some studies suggest the passing of cold air into your respiratory passages could decrease your local immune system’s response to infections,’ she says. ‘When it comes to dressing appropriately in winter, children aren’t able to regulate their body temperature as well as adults, so they need more
flexibility in terms of their clothing to help them adjust to the environment.’
For adults, Dr Coppin suggests wearing several thin, warm layers that insulate better against the cold and can be removed to adjust for temperature changes. ‘Dressing appropriately based on activity is important too; preparing for a day outside in the cold is different to preparing for a day indoors,’ he says.
Keep it clean
- Wash your hands more regularly.
- Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze.
- Make sure rooms are well ventilated.
- Wipe down door handles and surfaces more frequently.
- Use the sanitiser wipes provided at most grocery shops before handling your trolley.
Avoid the crowds: During peak cold and flu season, avoid overcrowded shopping malls, pharmacies, and doctors’
rooms. You’re less likely to fall ill if you steer clear of sick people.
Don’t wait, vaccinate
Dr Coppin recommends vaccinating against the flu every flu season, while Dr Asiedu-Darkwah recommends the vaccine to elderly patients and patients with poor immunity in particular. ‘Even healthy people can contract flu, fall ill, and spread it to others,’ says Dr Coppin. He advises that the vaccine (which can usually be given to anyone from six months old, upwards) stimulates your body’s immune system to produce antibodies that protect you against infection from the viruses in the vaccine. ‘The vaccine only protects against the viruses that were used to make it; these are usually the most common ones during the upcoming flu season,’ explains Dr Coppin.
Did you know?
Dr Asiedu-Darkwah says the vaccine may cause an allergic reaction in patients who are allergic to eggs, but if you’ve only experienced a mild allergic reaction to eggs, such as hives (urticaria), you could still get vaccinated.
Pros and cons
- Pro: Decreased risk of flu infection and infecting others.
- Con: Even if you’re vaccinated, there’s no guarantee you won’t contract flu.
- Pro: If you become infected, your symptoms are likely to be milder. This means less sick days and time off work.
Myth: the flu vaccine makes you sick
According to Dr Coppin, there are several reasons why you might still experience flu symptoms after vaccination:
- Contracting other respiratory viruses associated with the common cold.
- Exposure to influenza viruses shortly before vaccination, or in the period it takes your body to produce antibodies.
- Exposure to influenza viruses that weren’t used to make the vaccine.
What about vitamin C?
Dr Coppin doesn’t recommend increasing vitamin C intake during cold and flu season as findings on its ability to protect against cold and flu infection have been inconsistent. He and Dr Asiedu-Darkwah agree that an intake of about 100mg a day by consuming vegetables (peppers, broccoli) and fruit (citrus, strawberries, guavas) is sufficient, but they recommend higher doses of between 500mg and 1 000mg to reduce the symptoms of the common cold if you’ve been infected.
On average, men should consume 2.2 litres of water daily, while women should consume around 1.6 litres to maintain healthy hydration levels. Both doctors warn against overuse of your air conditioner, even on the heat setting.
‘This tends to dry out the air and your mucous membranes, which can result in a sore throat or stuffy nose,’ says Dr Coppin. Dr Asiedu-Darkwah adds that the circulation of air from the system can increase the spread of infected air droplets and therefore your risk of becoming sick.
Dr Coppin’s air-con tips
- Stay hydrated; always have water at hand, and take regular sips.
- Use throat lozenges to stimulate saliva production and help alleviate pain for a sore throat.
- Put moisture back into the air with humidifiers and vaporisers.
- Avoid nose bleeds by keeping your nasal mucous membranes lubricated with nose sprays containing normal saline.
Mix it up
Lukewarm water goes down easier in cold weather; add a slice of lemon for flavour and a metabolism boost while
you get your 1.6 litres in.
Physical education sports coach and founder of BeActive, Monika Human, explains that regular exercise strengthens your immune system so you can fight infections. ‘When you exercise and get your blood pumping, immune cells circulate through your body more quickly to seek and destroy infections. This boost only lasts a few hours, so exercise regularly for long-term effects,’ she says.
Exercise keeps seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and depression at bay by releasing happy hormones. ‘Just 45 minutes of daily exercise can change your entire outlook on winter,’ says Monika. ‘You can hide extra kilos under thick coats in winter, but not in summer,’ she adds. ‘Exercise during winter to stay in shape all year instead of spending hours in the gym getting your body bikini-ready in spring. ‘You burn more calories when you’re cold because your body has to work harder to reach a stable temperature,’ explains Monika. ‘It’s like a mini workout before you’ve even tied your laces!’
Monika’s top 3 winter workout tips
- ‘Warm up before exercise to prevent pulled muscles. Arm and leg muscles in particular feel the effects of cold temperatures as they cool down faster and are tougher to warm up in the first place, so extend your warm-up time in winter.’
- ‘Stretch before and after workouts to increase flexibility and range of motion, and reduce your risk of injury. Stretching is more important in winter because your body’s cold and your muscles contract to conserve
heat, making them tighter, less supple, and more prone to injury.’ She suggests dynamic stretches like leg kicks and arm circles to stretch your muscles and help you warm up.
- Keep warm after workouts. ‘Strip down completely and change into warm, dry clothes and undergarments. Sweat underneath your workout gear makes you colder more quickly and increases your risk of illness.’
You’re sick… now what?
1. Know what it is
Dr Coppin says it can be very difficult to tell the difference between the common cold and the flu. ‘Symptoms often overlap, but flu symptoms tend to be more severe and come on quite quickly,’ he says.
The common cold: Colds usually begin with non-specific symptoms (a sore throat, runny nose, or cough) that last between three days and a week. Plus, it’s unusual to experience a fever if you have a cold.
Flu: According to Dr Coppin, flu symptoms may also include a sore throat, runny nose, and cough, but headaches, muscle and joint aches, and low-grade fever can also be expected. ‘Flu symptoms gradually improve over two to five days, but it’s common to feel run down for a week or more,’ he says.
2. Treat it
‘It’s not always necessary to go straight to your doctor if you’re feeling unwell, especially for colds and flu,’ says Dr Coppin. ‘Most of the time, the treatment’s symptomatic and available over the counter. Chatting to your pharmacist can be helpful and could save you an expensive and unnecessary doctor’s visit.’
Nagging noses: While nasal decongestants are handy for blocked noses, they shouldn’t be used for longer than five days at a time, to avoid other complications like rebound congestion.
Sore and scratchy throats: ‘This may be caused by a post-nasal drip or viral infection,’ says Dr Coppin. ‘Symptomatic treatment in the form of throat sprays, antihistamines, nasal sprays, and anti-inflammatories may be helpful in providing relief.’ For a bacterial throat infection, however, an antibacterial throat spray probably won’t be adequate to treat it, and in this case, he recommends a trip to your doctor.
When to visit your doctor: Dr Coppin recommends self-medication with symptomatic relief before rushing off to the doctor. But how long should you wait to feel better? ‘I have a general three-day rule for most things; if your symptoms aren’t subsiding after three days, go and see your doctor,’ he says. ‘It’s important to give your medication time to work and to let your body rest, but sometimes, if your symptoms get worse, or if they’re particularly severe from the start, it may be necessary to visit your doctor sooner rather than later.’
3. Rest and recover
‘You should begin feeling better within two to five days, but your illness could be contagious for another week after your symptoms have subsided,’ says Dr Coppin. ‘So avoid returning to work while you’re still sick as you risk infecting those around you!’
FEATURE: CANDICE CURTIS PHOTOS: FOTOLIA.COM