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Beating The Bugs

March 15, 2018

2017-2018 Flu Season

By: Anonymous M.D.

Flu season this year has been robust! If you were one of the potentially 35 million Americans infected with influenza this season, you are aware of how disabling and prolonged the symptoms can be. Not to mention the risk of hospitalization and death that even normal, healthy individuals face with influenza. What can you do now and year-round to avoid coming down with those ubiquitous respiratory viruses, and even the common cold? Here are some fast facts to help you up your virus protection game:

  1. Get the Shot: It's true... the influenza vaccine is far from perfect. Vaccine production is a lengthy process that begins six or more months before flu season even starts. Depending on the match between the stains of virus contained in the vaccine and those circulating in any given season, the effectiveness of flu vaccine can vary widely, and rarely exceeds 60%. But, while the vaccine may not entirely prevent infection, it provides substantial protection against ending up in the hospital if you do get influenza. Studies have shown that flu vaccine significantly reduces the risk of complications in people with diabetes, heart and lung disease. And a 2017 study demonstrated flu vaccine markedly reduced a child's risk of dying from influenza. Plus, vaccinating yourself helps protect vulnerable people around you - the young, elderly, and chronically ill. So, next fall, make a point to roll up your sleeve and get that flu shot!
  2. Wash Your Paws: Respiratory viruses have the advantage of existing in huge numbers in nasal secretions - a source that is very hard to keep contained. We sneeze, cough, use tissues, and leave millions of viral particles behind, even when we are doing our best to keep our bugs to ourselves. Studies have shown high volumes of viruses detected on kitchen utensils. keyboards, phones, door knobs, and water fountains. In a series of somewhat disgusting but funny experiments in the 1970's and 80's, investigators demonstrated that the common cold virus is effectively transmitted from infected individuals to susceptible contacts via what are called "fomites" - inanimate objects in the environment. One meta-analysis of the effect of hand hygiene in the community setting found a 21% reduction in respiratory infections and 31% drop in gastrointestinal illnesses just by routinely washing or using an alcohol rub.
  3. Don't Touch Your Face: Especially your nose! If you do happen to touch a pen or elevator button contaminated with viral particles, you still have a chance against it! Just sitting in a crowded room and looking around you can see that the average person touches their face on average every 3-4 minutes. But you can actively decide not to inoculate your body with randomly acquired viruses on your hands by steering clear of the "portals of entry". The common cold virus in particular requires only a tiny amount of virus just inside the nose establish infection. But the mouth and eyes are other locations where viruses can make their way in. So work on reducing the number of times you touch your face. Warning: this is a hard habit to break! And, especially during flu season, make liberal use of that alcohol rub to get rid of those stealthy viruses on your hands.
  4. Get Your ZZZ's: If you have noticed that you are more prone to coming down with a cold when you are behind on your sleep, you are not alone. In his paper, Sleep Habits and Susceptibility to the Common Cold, Cohen found that people who reported less than 7 hours of sleep per night were almost 3 times more likely to develop a cold if exposed to a cold virus than people who slept 8 hours or more. Virtually the same outcome was found in a follow-up study using actigraphy, where, in addition to self-reporting sleep times, subjects wore a motion detector bracelet to measure sleep duration. Just one more reason to make sure you get a good night's rest.

5. Chill Out: The same investigator studied the link between psychological stress and susceptibility to the common cold. He had almost 400 people complete 3 different kinds of psychological stress questionnaires and then exposed them to laboratory-grown strains of cold viruses. No surprise, he found a dose-response relationship between self-perceived amount of stress and the risk of acquiring a cold when exposed to one. Why might this be so? Psychological stress is thought to influence function through hormone level changes and/or autonomic nerves acting on lymph tissue.

Reducing stress is a good idea for myriad reasons. Add to them the benefit of potentially avoiding the common cold!



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