A badly congested and bleary-eyed man pokes his head through a door and intones, “Dave, I’m sorry to interrupt. I’ve got to take a sick day tomorrow.”
The recipient of the man’s pronouncement isn’t his boss, but a brown-eyed toddler standing in his crib with a quizzical look on his little face.
This TV commercial for a cold medicine elicits chuckles, but the underlying message is nothing to sneeze at: Moms and dads who care for their children can’t take days off.
As germs begin to outnumber snowflakes, take comfort. Several basic, commonsense, and proactive approaches to keep bugs at bay exist, as outlined by a medical doctor, a registered dietitian, and a mental health expert.
For The Body
Wash Your Hands
Good hand hygiene ranks No. 1 on the prevention list of Dr. Emily Hill Bowman, a physician at Boys Town Internal Medicine. That means frequently washing your hands with soap and water, or, in their absence, using a hand sanitizer.
“Contact with hands is a frequent cause of transmission for viral infections,” says Hill Bowman, and that includes touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands. Medical guidelines recommend a good scrubbing for 20 seconds, or about the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice.
Cover Your Mouth
Viral illnesses can spread through respiratory secretions. “Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, then wash your hands,” cautions the internist.
Get a Flu Shot
Because influenza can lead to serious consequences, especially for younger children and the elderly, Hill Bowman recommends everyone over the age of six months should get a flu shot to prevent the spread of the virus. ”Typically, the influenza vaccine is an inactive vaccine so it does not cause influenza,” reassures Hill Bowman, allaying concerns a flu shot might do more harm than good.
Take Vitamin D
Healthy habits make your immune system fight infection. That means eating right, exercising, and getting enough sleep. “But we don’t get enough vitamin D in our diet and we don’t get enough [vitamin D] from the sun after September, which is why vitamin D is always my starting point with people,” says registered dietician and exercise physiologist Rebecca Mohning, owner of Expert Nutrition in Omaha. “It boosts the immune system and it’s naturally occurring in mushrooms and egg yolks, but not in the amount we need on a daily basis.”
Mohning says fiber, particularly that found in oats, barley, and nuts, has protective compounds that boost the immune system.
Probiotics—the Friendly Bacteria
Those good live cultures found in yogurt or in the fermented milk drink kefir also boost your body’s ability to fight infection, as do fermented foods like sauerkraut. Not a fan? Take a probiotic supplement, says Mohning.
Getting enough water during the winter months can be more difficult because you may not feel as thirsty. But nothing beats water for flushing toxins from your body. Try drinking a 12-oz. mug of hot water with one teaspoon of lemon juice for a healthy way to warm up.
For The Mind
Does anyone in your family turn on all the lights in the house as soon as the sun makes an early exit during the winter? Seasonal affective disorder, also called the winter blues, affects about 15 million Americans, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. The depressive disorder can sap your energy and bring on moodiness. Treatment for SAD can include a light box and, in extreme cases, talking with a mental health practitioner.
Plan Activities and Stick to the Plan
Heading off the blues before they arrive can be as simple as marking a calendar, says Jennifer Harsh, Ph.D., director of behavioral medicine for General Internal Medicine at UNMC. “If we know the cold weather season can be difficult for us mentally, we can plan ahead,” she says.
As a family therapist, Harsh believes strongly that keeping the mind and the body active can help your physical, emotional, and social well-being.
“Plan activities as a family or with a partner, whether they include games indoors or physical exercise elsewhere. Put them on a schedule or calendar and hold it with the same importance as you would hold going to work every day,” she says. “That way you act according to the schedule instead of according to your mood.”
Harsh says you can stave off emotional difficulties when you have something planned ahead of time that you value.
Don’t Be Too Hard On Yourself
Maintaining good mental health should hold fast to the commonsense, basic, proactive approach that characterizes a healthy body discipline.
“Make your goals specific, attainable, and measureable,” says Harsh. “When you engage your family or a partner, you’re more likely to follow through.”
This article was originally printed in the Winter 2018 edition of Family Guide.