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Navigating the flu season | Gustafson
While most of us are out and about doing our gift shopping, attending parties, going on vacations or visiting loved ones, we are also increasingly at risk of falling prey to the countless health hazards we encounter in public places – most commonly a cold or the flu.
Against widespread opinion, foul weather and cold temperatures have little to do with our heightened chances of catching something this time of the year. It's rather our being in crowded places like shopping malls, restaurants and airports that causes our undoing.
The flu season starts in October and lasts through April, which happens to coincide with the school year rather than changes in temperature, said Dr. Jon Abramson, a specialist in infectious disease at Wake Forest Baptist Health, North Carolina, in an interview with ABC News/Health. He points to studies that have shown how the flu spreads mostly from school-age children who are in close physical contact with one another and who subsequently pass it on to adults. That can happen in any climate zone, including where it's warm all year round.
That's also one of the reasons why shopping malls rank among the germiest public places anywhere. It's not just the restrooms you should be weary of, it's also the food court tables, door handles, escalator handrails, checkout counters – and especially toys.
"All those sniffling tots inside toy stores (...) who just like to put everything in their mouths, can leave invisible coatings of germs behind – not to mention what they spew into the air when they sneeze or cough," said Jane E. Allen, a health writer for ABC.
Of course, adults disseminate bacteria and viruses just as much.
"The great hazard is being that close to so many people and being in everyone's breathing space," said Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn., to ABC. He recommends washing hands often and especially before touching food.
"We live in a world that's not sterile, but what we'd like to do is to be hygienic," he added. Better than using soap from dispensers in public bathroom are hand sanitizers you can carry with you.
Best defense? A flu shot
Getting vaccinated against the flu and other contagious diseases such as whooping cough is certainly advisable, although there is no guarantee that you will escape the entire flu season unscathed.
Studies found that flu shots are effective only about 60 percent of the time, but are still considered the best defense we have available today. The reason for the mixed success rate is that there are literally hundreds of strains of the flu virus. Vaccines offered to the public are geared toward the most common types that are in seasonal circulation. And those change constantly, making a catch-all approach impossible.
Also, even after vaccination, the body needs some time to build-up enough antibodies to fend off infections, which can take several weeks. Sometimes, it can then already be too late.
Besides frequent hand washing, health experts also recommend adherence to a highly nutritious diet, exercise and sufficient amounts of sleep to strengthen the immune system. It is also important not to get too paranoid in our efforts to stay healthy. Ultimately, we can only do so much to protect ourselves and stay functional at the same time.
Timi Gustafson RD, LDN, is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book "The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun," which is available on her blog, "Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.", and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.