With summer slipping away, it’s time to think about protecting yourself from the kinds of illnesses that seem to emerge more frequently during the cooler months, when people are more likely to be grouped together indoors, making it easier to pass around germs.
Respiratory infections can range from colds, which are most common and least dangerous, to the flu, which is far less common but can result in far more serious complications. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimate 5 to 20 percent of Americans get the flu each year, resulting in 200,000 hospitalizations and up to 49,000 deaths.
Get Your Shots
Ever since 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended yearly flu vaccines for everyone over the age of six months and those at high risk of serious flu complications. Complications can include ear infections, sinus infections, pneumonia and bronchitis, and can lead to hospitalization and even death. Those at high risk include children younger than five, pregnant women, adults older than 65 and residents of nursing homes and other long-term-care facilities, which may experience widespread outbreaks of the disease.
People who have other medical conditions, such as asthma or heart disease, or who have a weakened immune system are also at higher risk for serious complications from the flu.
You can get a flu shot at your doctor’s office or at your local pharmacy. Seniors and those with weakened immune systems should also get a pneumococcal vaccine to prevent against pneumonia.
Ward Off Germs
Here are some simple steps the CDC recommends to help prevent infectious disease:
• Avoid close contact with people you know are sick. If you’re sick, try limiting your contact with others to avoid infecting anyone else.
• If you are sick with flulike symptoms, stay home and limit contact with others until your fever has been gone a full 24 hours.
• Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, and then throw the tissue in the trash.
• Wash your hands frequently, using soap and water.
• Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth, where germs are spread.
• Clean and disinfect objects and surfaces that come into contact with germs (e.g., kitchen and bathroom counters and door knobs, keyboards and phones).
While there’s still no cure for the common cold, there are remedies that have been shown to reduce the length and severity of this bothersome illness.
According to the NIH, studies have shown that taking zinc orally, if done within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms, can reduce the length and severity of a cold. However, there are side effects, such as nausea and gastrointestinal problems, and zinc can interact negatively with some prescription medications.
The CDC reports that taking vitamin C regularly can also slightly reduce cold symptoms, but will not prevent colds. Taking it after symptoms appear does no good.
Echinacea and Probiotics
There is no scientific evidence to support taking echinacea to treat or prevent colds, and the evidence supporting probiotics is weak, according to NIH.