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Published 14 August 2012 13:43, Updated 14 August 2012 15:19
Yep, it’s the germ freak’s worst nightmare. Nasties from a cough or a sneeze can travel up to nine metres. US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention Public Health Image Library / Brian Judd
Is this the worst season for colds and flu, or is it just me?
It doesn’t matter that I wash my hands every time I pass a tap, that I press the button at the pedestrian crossing lights with my elbow, that I air kiss and wave, rather than shake hands.
I can avoid queues where people might cough down the back of your neck, I can stand on the bus rather than risk sitting next to a sneezer, but none of it seems to make any difference.
My GP has been overrun by patients with bronchitis. I sat in her waiting room for 30 minutes listening to her secretary ring the offices of respiratory specialists who wouldn’t even accept her call.
It doesn’t help that Australia is the world champion at asthma, but in the flu season it can take two to three months to see a specialist on Sydney’s north shore.
Children, of course, are an excellent way to catch bugs (both the germ kind and the little-legged ones), but workplaces too are incubators for the breeding and transmission of viruses.
We all know that we are supposed to stay home if we think we may be infectious, but who is going to do our work when we are away? There are a lucky minority (mostly working for IT companies) who have been set up to work from home whenever it suits them, but the rest of us struggle in when we shouldn’t – sharing and not caring.
According to the NSW Department of Health’s monthly influenza reports, July and August are peak months for influenza. While its statistics show that it has been a fairly run-of-the-mill year in terms of the number of people turning up to hospital with influenza-type illnesses, the amount of people who were admitted to the critical care wards jumped significantly from May to mid July.
It is impossible to avoid catching a cold unless you seal yourself into a bubble, but there are a number of things you can do to increase your chances of staying healthy.
1. Wash your hands after being in a crowded place or in the same room as someone with a cold. Episodes of colds and flu among 1442 naval recruits at a training centre in Great Lakes, Illinois in the US almost halved after they were commanded to wash their hands more frequently. Experts now believe that many, or even most, colds are passed on via hands.
2. Don’t touch your nose and eyes unless you have to. Once the virus is on your hands it’s all too easy to transfer it through the tear ducts into the nose. During a cough or sneeze, 40,000 infected droplets may be expelled as far as 9 metres.
3. Wear gloves when you travel on public transport. Door handles, handrails on public transport, light switches and crockery are common ways to pick up a cold.
4. Wrap up. “In an experiment at Cardiff University’s Common Cold Centre, 90 volunteers spent 20 minutes with their feet in cold water and 29 per cent developed cold symptoms within five days compared to 9 per cent of the control group who simply dangled their feet in an empty bowl,” according to Saga.
5. Cover your nose with a scarf when the weather is cold. Professor Ron Eccles, director of Cardiff University’s centre, says that viruses multiply in the cells that line the nose, and they breed faster when the cells are cool.
6. Take a walk. Even on a cold day, it boosts your immune system. “A study by Professor David Nieman at Appalachian State University in North Carolina examined the risks of catching a cold among a group of women aged between 65 and 84 over a 12-week period. Their findings revealed that walking for between 30 and 40 minutes five times a week almost halved the women’s risk of catching a cold.”
7. Get older. After the age of 50, the average person has one to two colds each year because their immune systems have learned to deal with the viruses. They also spend less time with small children, who are cold breeders. Twenty year-olds have two to three colds each year.
8. Try a new nasal spray. Such a spray can halve the likelihood of getting a cold.
9. Banish stress. “Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh asked 276 healthy volunteers about the stresses in their lives and then deposited cold viruses in their noses. Those who had reported chronic stress (especially personal difficulties with friends or relatives) were more than twice as likely to become ill with a cold. It seems that chronic stress affects the immune system and makes people less resistant to infection.”
10. Don’t waste money on miracle cures. “In a study at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, 473 volunteers were given either Echinacea or a dummy version for several days, and then a dose of common cold virus. Sadly, the results, published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2005, showed that Echinacea had no effect on the likelihood of developing a cold or its severity. Vitamin C does not fare much better. “Scientists at the Australian National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health looked at 55 studies of vitamin C and the common cold, going back 65 years and involving more than 11,000 people. They concluded that, for most people, taking vitamin C regularly does not reduce your chances of getting a cold. However it did have a noticeably good effect on marathon runners, skiers and soldiers exposed to extreme conditions.”