‘Tis the Season For Flu And Cold

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A 3D version of the Influenza A H1N1 virus. Image by Scherle

A 3D version of the Influenza A H1N1 virus. You don’t want to catch the flu for the holidays! Image by Scherle

The holidays come with good food, get-togethers, sharing in gifts, and even illnesses. Although illnesses aren’t what most people want for the holidays, colds and stomach bugs are frequent this time of year.

Have you ever wondered why people are most likely to get sick during the holidays? And is there any way to prevent these unexpected “houseguests?”

Flu and Cold Season

It’s the most wonderful time of the year…for colds! So maybe that’s not how the song goes, but it’s true that colds and influenza are more likely during the winter months, compared to our warmer summer months.

‘Flu season’ occurs each year between October and May in the United States – generally peaking in January and February, but why during the cold weather? No one knows for sure, but it is likely due to several factors that contribute to the increase in illnesses.

Staying Indoors With Germs

During cold months, people stay indoors more often, which means the transmission of illnesses that can be easily passed from one person to another in smaller spaces.

Colds and influenza, both respiratory illnesses, can transfer when a sick person sneezes or coughs – spraying respiratory droplets which contain the virus. When you’re in range, the droplets can land on you – and if you touch your eyes, nose, or mouth before washing your hands, then the virus can enter via one of those routes. You can also catch cold and flu viruses from touching objects that may have been contaminated with the viruses via those same coughs and sneezes – even the family pet can give you the flu!

According to the Mayo Clinic, viruses can stay active on surfaces anywhere from a few minutes to 48 hours! So before your next holiday party, make sure you wash your hands before eating and after shaking hands with others.

Helpful advice from the CDC for when you have a cold. Image by the CDC

The CDC offers helpful advice for when you have a cold. Image by the CDC.

Why Do You Get Sick? Dry Air

Dry air may also play a role in the increase in illnesses during the colder months. Inside your nose, mouth, lungs, and other parts of your body you have what are called mucous membranes. Mucous membranes make mucus, which help keep everything moist. When dry air settles in over the colder months, and when furnaces and fireplaces dry out the air in your home, your mucous membranes can become dehydrated, making a favorable condition for colds and flu viruses. A humidifier can help increase the humidity in your home, just be careful to watch out for mold and fungus – they also love warm, moist environments, and can also make you sick.

Low Vitamin D Levels

Being out in the sun allows your body to synthesize vitamin D. You can also get vitamin D from fish, eggs, fortified milk, and cod liver oil. Being out in the sun for as little as 10 minutes is enough to prevent any deficiency, reports the National Institutes of Health.

But can vitamin D prevent colds? According to a randomized trial, researchers found that vitamin D supplements don’t ease or prevent colds in people with normal levels of vitamin D. However, for people, especially in developing countries, who have low levels of vitamin D, supplements has significantly reduced the amount of respiratory infections. If you think you have a low level of vitamin D, it might be worth it to talk to your doctor to find out if a supplement would help you.

Leisure Sickness: High Stress/Low Stress

Another possible reason for getting sick during the winter may be related to your job. Those who work long hours, have high-stress jobs, have a hard time adjusting between work and home, and are in need of a much needed break, may have what scientists are now calling ‘leisure sickness.’ These people often get sick on the weekends or during the holidays, when they have some time off.

Professor of organisational psychology at the University of Lancaster, Cary Cooper, told WebMD, “Your immune system is stimulated by the pressure, so when you have deadlines your body knows you can’t get ill. When you take a break your immune system just thinks – no more pressure. I can get sick now. When you stop working, it’s like a fuse, with your brain telling your body it can switch off, so you get a cold or a headache.”

‘Tis the Season for Sickness… Prevention

While no one knows for sure what causes the all of the increases in colds and flu over the holidays, these factors may all play into making you sick during the season. Washing your hands, covering your cough and your sneeze, getting enough rest, eating healthy foods, drinking enough water, and staying home when you are sick, all some of the ways you can help prevent the spread of the dreaded holiday illnesses.

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