Loyola health care professionals offer tips to help you ward off the flu, cold and other infectious illnesses
MAYWOOD, Ill. - As you age, your immune system's ability to fight off bacteria, viruses, fungus and other infectious germs begins to decline.
So having a healthy immune system is a plus year-round but never more so than now as we enter the height of cold and flu season when you can expect to begin seeing watery eyes, runny noses and fevered brows in epidemic proportions.
Fortunately, there are several simple things you can do to revitalize your immune system. When it comes to influenza, getting a flu shot is the single best thing you can do to protect yourself against an illness that each year kills 36,000 Americans and hospitalizes 200,000.
"A flu shot can significantly prepare your immune system against the flu virus by stimulating your immune system to generate antibodies against the virus," said Dr. Michael Koller, associate professor, Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. "The time is now to get a flu shot because it takes about two weeks to develop the antibody response."
As effective as the flu vaccine can be against influenza, it offers no protection against non-flu germs that cause the common cold and other illnesses. Fortunately, adopting a few healthy habits can put the very spark in your immune system that you'll need to improve your chances of not falling victim to seasonal illnesses.
"There's a lot about our lifestyles that cause us to get ill," said Dr. James Judge, family medicine, Loyola University Health System. "Age and unhealthy lifestyle choices can break down your immune system's effectiveness. When your immune system is busy fighting your poor habits, it is unable to protect your body against germs."
Frequent hand washing is one of the best things you can do to protect yourself from contracting and spreading all types of germs, influenza virus included.
"Wash your hands before eating, after using the bathroom and after touching objects that may carry germs like doorknobs or public telephones," Judge said. "Use hot water and soap and scrub vigorously for about 15 seconds. It's a good way to avoid infections."
Since you can't eliminate germs from your hands are all times, avoid touching your eyes, mouth and nose, which are natural entry ways for viruses and bacteria. Also, cover your nose and mouth while sneezing.
"Use disposable tissue in such a way that you don't inadvertently contaminate your hands with flu or cold germs," Koller said. "If you have any doubts, wash your hands."
Eliminating stress in your life is another good way to put some of the steam back into your immune system.
"We know that stress has very negative implications in terms of how the body heals," Judge said. "Take time out for yourself. Assess what may be causing stress in your life -- work, commitments, family pressures -- and take steps to eliminate the stressors. And don't be afraid to seek comfort from friends and loved ones."
Another good way to rejuvenate your immune system is probably the easiest. Take a load off, slow down and get some rest. Seven to eight hours a night is best.
"Lots of studies have shown that people who get fewer than seven hours of sleep have twice as much chance of developing upper respiratory illnesses," Judge said.
Another good way is to get up off the couch and get your heart beating faster. Take up an exercise program that will help you to shed pounds while getting fitter.
"All the studies on moderate exercise say that it can cut the likelihood of respiratory illness by 50 percent," Judge said.
Eating a well-balanced diet will also help you give your immune system a lift.
"A poor diet can cause weight gain and decreased energy," Judge said. "Plus, you'll miss out on important vitamins and antioxidants that help boost your immune system."
If you're a smoker, now is a good time to give your immune system the best Christmas present of all by quitting, said Dr. Jamie Birris, assistant professor, department of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences, Stritch School of Medicine.
"Smokers get an entirely different -- and usually more potent -- kind of infection as a result of the smoking and its impact on the immune system," said Birris, who provides counseling to patients in Loyola's Smoking Cessation Clinic. "The combination of chronic irritation and the immune system getting hit both play roles in why smokers get sick more often."