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Cold Power: getting your immune system fighting fit

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Here we are again…the dreaded lurgy season.

It’s common knowledge to most people that viruses are the main culprits; highly sociable little critters too…they love to share themselves around.

When they strike we pretty much expect to feel like crap for a while but that our immune systems will eventually adapt and overcome.

The occasional viral illness is unavoidable, so the main question here is “how do I make sure my immune system is working at its best?”

This information is rebooted from previous winter posts, but since most of us cop at least one cold per season I’m sure its relevance will outlast your dry cough and drippy nose.

Let’s raise a glass of juice with echinacea, hold our noses and drink to good winter health – cheers!

Immunity Busters

Your immune system reflects your overall state of health. Every hormone that is produced reactively by (for example) stress, sleep deprivation or disease will affect how your body reacts to attacks by the viruses and bacteria you come in contact with.

It stands to reason that keeping your body as healthy, well-rested, stress-free and optimally nourished will be protective against infection.

Everyone needs a certain level of “stress” to function normally (let’s call that “normal daily life” shall we?) but if we operate at constantly high-stress levels our inner resources are exhausted in maintaining this ongoing state of high alert. The first sign that this might be happening to you may be that you become flat or unwell on weekends and holidays when the adrenalin you’ve been running on is gone.

You may also be environmentally predisposed to come into contact with loads of germs. As a mother of young kids and a GP, I’m frequently exposed to new viruses, and at times I lose the battle.

You’re at higher risk too if you have young kids in daycare or school, if you are a healthcare worker, childcare worker or even an office worker if your building is poorly ventilated and overcrowded (ever hear of ‘sick building syndrome’?).

You may also have a chronic condition which compromises your immune system (eg. smoking, HIV, immune-suppressant medication or having had your spleen removed) or makes infection more likely (eg. diabetes, hospitalisation).

Immunity Boosters

Nutrition

As well as making sure your diet meets all the daily intake recommendations there are also certain foods and nutrients that have some evidence supporting their use as immune-boosters, such as vitamin C, zinc and echinacea. There are also many different vitamins and nutrients recommended by natural therapists, some supported by evidence and others not so much.

If you feel like trying any type of dietary supplement then make sure you are well-informed about their potential side-effects, interactions (with other medications or medical conditions) and cost.

Exercise

Keeping yourself fit with regular exercise boosts your immune system as well, by improving mood and reducing stress. Improved lung function from aerobic exercise will also help you to compensate for any coughs or lung infections that come along.

But exercise junkies beware: when you’re unwell you mustn’t overdo it; you’ll just exhaust yourself and deplete your healing resources. Ease up when you’re sick, even if it means missing that half-marathon you’ve been training for.

Rest & relaxation

Most general advice for boosting immunity will recommend sleep and stress reduction, and with good reason. There is lots of supportive medical evidence, not to mention the fact that most of us have learned through bitter experience how easily we succumb to illness when we’ve been “under the pump”.

If you suffer from recurrent cold sores or genital herpes you may also notice new lesions at times when your immune system is fragile. Read the signs, listen to your body.

Immunisation

Depending on your age, occupation, family situation, state of health and even cultural background there will be different immunisation recommendations for you. Some may be government-funded, such as pneumococcal vaccination for immune-compromised, elderly and indigenous people.

Influenza vaccination is strongly recommended and free for those considered most vulnerable in the community, as listed in this ACT Health Factsheet:

  • 65 years of age and over
  • Women at any stage of pregnancy
  • Children aged six months to five years old
  • Indigenous people six months to five years old or 15 years and over, and
  • Any person six months of age with an underlying medical condition.
  • This includes:
    • Cardiac disease
    • Respiratory disease including severe asthma
    • Kidney disease
    • Diabetes
    • Impaired immunity
    • Neuromuscular disease

Regardless of whether you qualify for government-funded vaccination, however, if you are a busy person with responsibilities and people who depend on you it is worth considering paying for a flu vaccination. Even most chemists are running flu clinics.

If you are concerned about possible risks or side effects associated with vaccinations then be informed and weigh up the arguments for and against based on facts. As always, speak to your doctor, practice nurse or community health worker for more information.

Hygiene

Common sense prevails! If you’re sick then don’t cough on other people. Wash your hands frequently and avoid kissing or breathing on others (unless you WANT them to suffer…?).

Don’t go to work in your crowded office if you’re coughing up a lung, and if you’re in a supervisory position then make sure the culture of your workplace is supportive of sick leave.

Some of my patients may even see me sporting a face mask during nose and throat exams occasionally, meaning that one of us probably has a respiratory illness and I’m trying to protect the other!

Germ warfare

Antibiotics – YOU DON’T NEED THEM FOR EVERY COUGH AND COLD, PEOPLE!

GP’s often feel pressured by patients to offer them, but unless your illness is bacterial (and most of them aren’t) then it’s not appropriate to treat with antibiotics.

Antibiotics may cause side effects like stomach upsets, thrush or allergic reactions, and increase bacterial resistance in the community so the drugs become ineffective when they are needed.

If you have a cold you need to rest, drink loads of fluids and use symptomatic treatments for the runny nose, aches, fever, etc. (available over the counter from the chemist).

Then if you don’t improve, worsen, or have an underlying medical condition which makes you more vulnerable you should see your doctor. This brochure provides a good summary of how to manage a common cold.

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