Tips for preventing colds and the flu

’Tis the season … for colds and the flu. And, thanks to COVID-19, people become even more anxious at the first sign of a sniffle.

Viruses ramp up their attack on our bodies during the winter, a time when people are sheltered inside because of the weather and not getting vitamin D from the sun as they do during the warm weather. The common cold is seemingly inevitable, especially for schoolchildren and the elderly. The flu is much more serious and sometimes must be treated more aggressively than with over-the-counter medicine.

When a cold hits, it’s anybody’s guess as to how long it will last. The common cold is in fact a viral infection of the throat and nose, also known as your upper respiratory tract. Many types of viruses can cause the common cold, but the most common is the rhinovirus.

“Respiratory infections spread most efficiently when people are together, indoors, where ventilation is not optimal,” says Dr. Ronald Musto of Capital Healthcare Associates, a division of Community Care Physicians, in Troy. “Thus, winter is prime time for the spread of respiratory infections. Typically, that is November through March in the Northern Hemisphere.” In the Southern Hemisphere, the opposite is true.

The best way to avoid respiratory infections, according to Musto, is to remain home if ill and cover sneezes and coughs with a tissue, wash your hands frequently and ask that those around you do the same. “Be immunized annually against influenza and make sure you are current on your COVID boosters. Make certain that you are current on your pertussis immunization and pneumococcal pneumonia immunization if eligible,” he advises.

Musto says influenza is a different virus than the ones that cause colds. “Influenza can be more severe and may progress to pneumonia in people who are younger, older or immunocompromised. Influenza typically accounts for about 30,000 deaths and 400,000 hospitalizations each year in the U.S.”

If you do get sick, Musto says it’s a good idea to touch base with your physician if you have symptoms of respiratory illness. “There are diagnostic tests for influenza and COVID that may guide treatment,” he says. “In particular, contact your physician promptly for high fevers, shaking chills, cough producing phlegm, shortness of breath, wheezing, inability to eat or drink or changes in mental status.”

Having a proper diet can go a long way toward remaining healthy during the winter, according to Jennifer Nardone, a registered dietitian and renal nutrition specialist practicing in Albany. “People in general understand that food plays an important role in their health. But, some people may lack a deeper understanding of the science and how to use food for their specific needs. The amount of information on food and nutrition is vast and widely accessible, but it can be confusing. It’s important that people reach out to a registered dietitian for guidance and reliable information,” she says.

Nardone says that a diet that is at least 50 percent plant-based can go a long way toward keeping an already healthy person healthy. “However, it’s also important for people to choose a healthy diet that is sustainable so they can maintain consistent healthy habits,” she says. “Generally speaking, eating more fruits and vegetables is an easy way to maintain a healthy diet.”

The holiday season and winter can be a challenging time for maintaining proper eating habits, Nardone says. “Making healthy choices can be a challenge every day,” she says. “Ask for help, plan ahead and take time to relax are just a few ideas to help you reduce stress and refocus your health and wellness needs or goals.”

Don’t be discouraged if you get sick during the winter. Studies show that most adults get at least one or two colds every year. Just keep an eye on how long it lasts: If you’re having high fevers or continuing symptoms, check with your doctor to make sure there aren’t other issues.

And because illnesses increase during the winter, get tested for COVID-19 if you think you may have been exposed to the virus. If you have a confirmed case of coronavirus rather than a cold, your doctor will guide you on best steps to take depending on the severity of your symptoms.

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