Last year was one of the best flu seasons we've seen in a while.
Between October 1, 2020 and January 30, 2021 only 155 people were hospitalized with the flu. That's a sharp drop from the previous year when 8,633 folks ended up in the hospital.
Much of that incredible decrease is thanks to measures against COVID-19: masks, frequent hand washing, and social distancing.
But this year is likely to look a lot different. Folks are working in the office, traveling, and socializing again. That means an increased risk of catching colds or the flu this year.
Today, I'll explain how to tell if you're fighting a cold, the flu, or COVID-19, and three ways to stay safe this season...
Cold, flu, or COVID-19? Here's how to tell what you're fighting...
The Cleveland Clinic has a concise list to help you figure out if you're fighting the flu or a cold and how to combat each one.
Cold: You can feel a cold "coming on" for a while before you really get sick. It typically lasts from one to three weeks. Symptoms include a runny rose, congestion, sneezing, sore throat, and coughing. Do what I do... Focus on extra rest, and avoid processed foods that mangle the immune system. Avoid over-the-counter cold medicines, but be sure to increase your vitamin C and even vitamin D3 (less sun in the Northern Hemisphere might mean your levels are dropping). By the way, the common cold also comes from a virus, so skip the antibiotics.
Flu: Use the acronym FACTS – fever, aches, chills, tiredness, and Sudden onset. Sudden onset is one of the key differences between the flu and a common cold. If you're older than 65 and feel flu symptoms come on quickly, get to your doctor fast. The sooner you can take antiviral medications, the better. The flu usually lasts two to four days when treated with bed rest, liquids, and over-the-counter flu medications. Again, avoid antibiotics for the flu since it's a virus. Antibiotics target bacteria, and they're mostly useless against the flu. (Some have anti-inflammatory properties that are being explored, but for now, it's not worth the risk of messing up gut bacteria.)
COVID-19: Mild cases of COVID-19 share many of the same symptoms as the flu. One key difference is that COVID-19 can cause a loss of smell or taste. Other differences include nausea, diarrhea, chest pain or pressure, and an inability to concentrate. (Some folks have even reported a bluish tint to their nails, lips, or skin.)
But only testing can confirm which virus you have. I'd say get a COVID-19 test if you're getting worse, are short of breath, and have a fever.
Of course, it's better to avoid getting sick in the first place. So here are some of my favorite ways of reducing your risk of illness...
1. Wash your hands regularly with non-antibacterial soap.
A study published in the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy found that antibacterial soaps are no better at cleaning your hands than plain soap.
But here's the thing... antibacterial soap is worse than useless. It's dangerous.
Triclosan is the main ingredient that makes many of these products "antibacterial." It was in about three-quarters of liquid antibacterial soaps and one-third of bar soaps when we first wrote about this danger a few years ago. Since then, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned it in hand soap. That's because triclosan alters our hormones... and even interferes with heart function, leading to heart failure.
And remember, frequent hand washing is the best way to prevent any cold or flu – so make it a regular practice.
Follow these steps when you wash your hands:
- Use running water, not standing. The movement of the water helps remove the germs from your skin. And it doesn't matter if it's cold or warm. Both are effective.
- Lather with regular soap. On its own, the action of rubbing your hands together creates the friction needed to get rid of germs and dirt. But soap adds another layer, causing the germs to release from your skin more easily.
- Count to 20 seconds. Keep rubbing your hands together for this long. You can hum the song "Happy Birthday" twice if you need a timer. Don't forget to get under your nails, too.
- Rinse and dry off with a clean towel. Make sure your towel dries in between uses to get rid of any lingering bacteria. Also, avoid those air blowers that you'll find in public restrooms. They spread germs and can undo all of that cleanliness.
2. Don't share food or drinks.
It's great to see restaurants opened up again and to share meals with friends and family. But don't completely let your guard down.
Eating and drinking from another person's utensils and glasses means you're also getting their saliva and bits of their cells, producing something called fomites. Fomites are any inanimate objects that can carry bacteria and viruses. Sharing drinking glasses or utensils is one of the quickest ways to get a cold, and you can also get strep throat, mumps, or even meningitis from doing this.
I used to be one of those folks who caught about three or four colds every winter. But once I stopped sharing my utensils or glasses with people, I cut my colds down to about one a year. And if I want to try my friend's food, I simply grab a clean fork.
3. Bundle up in the cold.
According to a study published in the scientific journal Viruses, chilly air weakens your body's defenses.
The researchers found that a drop in humidity and temperature increases your risk of human rhinovirus infection (the common cold). One possible explanation is that colder, less humid air dries out the mucous membranes lining your nose, mouth, and eyes. These membranes help prevent viruses from entering your body. When they're dry, they leave your body open to infection. It only takes three days of falling temperatures and humidity to dry out your mucous membranes.
I bundle up when going outside in the chilly winter months. Friends and family tease me for my rule about wearing my earmuffs below 50 degrees and scarves below 40 degrees, but I like to be safe. Make sure to take other precautions against the cold and flu – wash your hands with simple soaps, get plenty of sleep, and take at least 1,000 mg of vitamin C almost daily during the cold stretches.
To keep your nose warm, do what I do... Wrap a scarf around your face when you're outside. A balaclava or ski mask is another good way to keep your face warm, especially if you spend large chunks of time in the winter cold. You can find one at sporting-goods stores or retailers like Target for less than $20.
Taking care of your health is crucial this time of year, especially if you're over 65. Your immune system isn't as strong as it used to be. That puts you at higher risk and makes you more vulnerable to complications and even death from the flu and pneumonia. Take the time to prevent these diseases and stay safe this winter.
What We're Reading...
- Three surprising ways to avoid the flu.
- Something different: What peppers have to do with this year's Nobel Prize.
Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,
Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
October 5, 2021