It might be a little late to completely avoid all manners of illness. It’s hard to reverse time and become a vegan retroactively since you were born.
But in the matter of infectious diseases, the main culprit in what I like to call “holiday seasonal crud,” is largely in your hands.
First, let’s define the usual suspects. We have influenza, a virus in a tough casing. Colds are caused by hundreds of different viruses (rhinovirus, adenovirus and others), while pneumonia can have both viral and bacterial causes. And everyone’s favorite – gastroenteritis – is a virus (rotavirus) causing intense misery, with the main symptoms being watery diarrhea and vomiting..
You might wonder why upper respiratory infections seem easiest to get during the holidays. It’s kind of an accidental diabolical system. Around the holidays everything changes. Our houses, left open and ventilated in warm weather, get buttoned up tight in the winter. Businesses do the same, and have less air exchanges and more foot traffic.
Lots of people are out shopping and running holiday errands. And every crowd you find yourself in typically has people coughing, sneezing and carrying on like Typhoid Mary. The low humidity lets microdroplets produced by coughing and sneezing stay airborne longer and spread wider. It becomes the perfect microscopic storm.
These microdroplets are tiny particles and hard to filter effectively. Your only protection from airborne attack is to have a good immune system and a flu shot. The flu shot takes at least nine days to produce immunity, so the sooner, the better.
But a large portion of holiday crud is not caught through the airborne route. Rather we touch things and then touch our face. Kids touch their face almost every minute. The average adult touches their face every 5 minutes or so.
Although it’s innocent and unconscious behavior, sweeping hair out of your face or rubbing tired eyes is a highly effective way to transfer live viruses and bacteria to your face, and right into your body.
Certain areas are especially germy during the holiday season and you should take extreme care in these locations.
Airplanes: Airplane bathrooms are heavily contaminated with infectious disease bugs. The forceful blue spray when flushing an airplane toilet actually puts E. coli bacteria into the air. To maintain breathable atmosphere at 30,000 feet the air is pressurized. That means the airplane vents a little air and most of it is recycled. The air is filtered during the recycling, but some believe viruses can colonize the filter and contribute to the spread of disease. And that is not even taking into account the sick passenger 3 inches away from you.
Shopping: Many of the stores you frequent are great places to get sick. Germy shopping cart handles finally have gotten some antiseptic wipes that many stores now provide. Better save a few wipes for elevator and ATM buttons, gas pump handles, and even your cell phone. All have heavy hand traffic and no routine cleaning.
Home: At home sweet home, the kitchen has more bacterial than the bathroom. Do you remember the last time you cleaned the refrigerator handle? How about the cabinet handle that hides the kitchen garbage can?
Avoiding holiday sickness needs to be a multi-front defense. To tame the airborne risk of catching influenza, a flu shot is still the best defense.
Stop transferring germs from frequently handled (and germy) surfaces around you by establishing a firm rule to wash or clean your hands before scratching your nose. A little sleep and exercise will also keep your immune system in top-fighting shape so you can enjoy the holidays.
Healthy Holidays to you!
Donald Bucklin, MD (Dr. B) is a Regional Medical Director for U.S. HealthWorks and has been practicing clinical occupational medicine for more than 25 years. Dr. B. works in our Scottsdale, Arizona clinic.
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