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Drug-Resistant Illnesses—What You Should Know

Drug-Resistant Illnesses—What You Should Know

With the huge rise in the use of antibiotics over the past 70 years, some pathogens are now becoming resistant to the drugs that once easily eradicated the illnesses these pathogens cause. People who become infected with one of these drug-resistant organisms are at increased risk for longer, more costly hospital stays and are more likely to die from their infection.

Medical researchers and public health experts believe there are a few different causes for the emergence of drug-resistant bacteria. These include the widespread use of antibiotics in animals as well as and the overuse and misuse of antibiotics in humans.

Cattle, pigs and chickens are routinely given antibiotics to prevent illness and increase weight gain. However, 55 outbreaks of foodborne illness over the past 40 years have been caused by antibiotic-resistant pathogens. New York Congresswoman Louise M. Slaughter, a microbiologist, said “We have evidence that the practice of overusing antibiotics in food-animals is ruining these drugs’ effectiveness, and every day that the government stands idly by, we move closer to the nightmare scenario where routine infections can no longer be cured with antibiotic treatment.” Slaughter has proposed Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), which would ban the use of 8 major classes of antibiotics from use on healthy animals, with exceptions only for animals who are actually ill.

Doctors are often pressured to prescribe antibiotics for illnesses that antibiotics are ineffective at treating, such as viruses. Parents of sick children have been shown to be particularly bad about exerting pressure on their doctor to give their children an antibiotic, no matter what the illness actually is. In the case of viruses (such as the one that causes the common cold, most coughs and the flu), antibiotics are useless. Antibiotics work against bacteria such as streptococcal bacteria (strep throat) and staphylococcal bacteria (skin infections). The bacterial infections most in danger of becoming resistant to all antibiotics include anthrax, gonorrhea, group B Streptococcus, Klebsiella, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), Streptococcus pneumoniae, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, vancomycin-resistant enterococci (VRE) and the antimicrobial-resistant staph bacteria VISA and VRSA.

The best way to help reduce the spread of drug-resistant illnesses is to refrain from pressuring your doctor to prescribe antibiotics when it is not appropriate, and when antibiotics are called for, to take them according to directions. Be sure to complete the full course of the antibiotic regimen prescribed, even if you are feeling well again. If you don’t, some bacteria may linger and develop a resistance to the drug you are taking, potentially making that antibiotic ineffective for you in the future. Do not skip any doses, share your antibiotics with anyone else, or use antibiotics that have been prescribed for someone else.

In general, the symptoms of a virus disappear in about a week or so. In contrast, bacterial infections tend to linger. So if you have been feeling ill for more than two weeks, consult with your physician to see if antibiotics may be appropriate for treating of your illness. If not, he or she can prescribe other effective ways to treat your condition.

When Are Antibiotics Appropriate and When Should I Avoid Using Them?

When Are Antibiotics Appropriate and When Should I Avoid Using Them?

People are becoming increasingly aware of the dangers that can result from the overuse of antibiotics. When antibiotics were first discovered in the early 20th century, researchers believed that they had found the key to conquering many deadly diseases. Since that time, antibiotics have certainly helped to cure diseases that once wiped out large parts of the population. However, there is growing evidence that antibiotics are now being used too frequently, and that they are often being used in inappropriate circumstances. This has led to many previously curable diseases becoming antibiotic-resistant, which means that a cure now requires the use far stronger antibiotics. In fact, some diseases have now become resistant to nearly all antibiotics. It is obvious that if antibiotic use continues in this way, we may have a major health crisis on our hands.

The first thing to be aware of is that antibiotics are not effective in the treatment of viruses. They only treat bacterial infections, certain fungal infections and parasites. For diseases such as the common cold, flu or bronchitis, antibiotics are completely ineffective and their use in cases such as these will only contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. You should not ask your doctor to prescribe antibiotics if you have a sore throat or the stomach flu, for instance. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), antibiotics were prescribed for an acute respiratory infection in 68% of visits to the doctor. However, 80% of those prescriptions were unnecessary.

Antibiotics are often an appropriate treatment for conditions such as severe sinus infections that last longer than two weeks, ear infections, bladder infections and skin infections. These are frequently due to a bacterial or fungal infection, and treating them with antibiotics is effective.

If you have been prescribed an antibiotic, it is very important that you take it exactly as directed by your physician. If your symptoms happen to clear up before the entire course of antibiotics is completed, you must still continue to take them as prescribed. This is because there may still be a few lingering bacteria in your system, and—if they are not all killed—the strongest ones may survive to produce new generations of ever stronger bacteria that might make current antibiotics less effective.

Some doctors feel pressured by their patients to prescribe something, whether it’s really going to be helpful or not. A study published in the journal Pediatrics found that pediatricians will prescribe antibiotics for children 62% of the time if parents expect them to, and only 7% of the time if the parents do not expect an antibiotic prescription. Do not put pressure on your doctor to prescribe antibiotics for your condition. He or she is the best judge as to whether antibiotics are appropriate.

Also, keeping adjusted helps keep your immune system at its best. To avoid catching colds and other viruses, be sure to keep you and your family adjusted! Call our office at 406-652-3553 if you need to schedule an appointment with Dr. Oblander!

What Is Immunotherapy and How Can It Help with Food Allergies?

What Is Immunotherapy and How Can It Help with Food Allergies?

young-parents-feeding-child

Food allergies affect over 15 million Americans, including 1 in every 13 children under the age of 18. The symptoms of these allergic reactions can range from minor (e.g., itching, swelling of the lips, intestinal cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting) to major or even life-threatening (e.g., development of hives and rashes, tightening of the throat to the point of being unable to breathe, significant drops in blood pressure).

Having such an allergy—or being the parent of a child with such an allergy—can impose unwelcome lifestyle limitations and cause a great deal of anxiety. At present, there is no known cure for serious food allergies that works for everyone. This means that the best approach for the time being is to completely avoid the food product to which you or your child has an allergic reaction. However, this is not always practical or possible to do. That’s why the majority of “treatments” currently available focus on managing the symptoms after an attack has taken place. For instance, individuals with serious food allergies may carry an auto-injector filled with epinephrine (adrenaline) with them at all times, just in case.

Naturally, because of the seriousness and the prevalence of food allergies, a great deal of research is being conducted on treatments to desensitize individuals to the foods they are allergic to. This may effectively “cure” the allergy for some sufferers. One of the fields that shows promise is the study of immunotherapy (more precisely, low-dose immunotherapy), in which extremely small amounts of the allergen are administered to allergy sufferers over time. The basic idea behind the experimental treatment is that the body will develop a tolerance to these low doses and that the allergic reaction will gradually cease.

The first work in immunotherapy was undertaken in the 1960s in England by Dr. S. Popper, who was trying to cure allergic reactions to pollen by injecting patients with low doses of the allergen in combination with the enzyme beta-glucuronidase in an approach called “enzyme potentiated desensitization” (EPD). While the then-experimental treatment showed early success, its use in the U.S. was suspended by the FDA for administrative reasons in 2001. However, follow-up work continued and an enhanced American version of the EPD injection called Low Dose Allergens (LDA) was later introduced.

The obvious drawback of this type of therapy is that the doses have to be injected by a physician. It is also necessary for patients to avoid outside exposure to larger doses of the allergens and to many medications while the treatment is underway. However, other researchers have continued to study desensitization via immunotherapy with the goal of finding other mechanisms of administering the low-dose allergens, such as oral medications, sublingual (under the tongue) medications, and others.

Some of the most promising work in this field is being performed at Stanford University School of Medicine by Kari Nadeau, Associate Professor of Allergies and Immunology. Nadeau is working with children afflicted with peanut allergies. Her approach is to give them minute doses of the peanut allergen and gradually escalate the doses over a period of months in the hope of them eventually developing immunity. Up to this point, Nadeau’s technique has produced positive results for many patients, but it does appear to have limitations. First, the therapy doesn’t seem to offer a permanent “cure”. Patients must continue to take low doses of the peanut allergens or risk losing their immunity. If they stop for more than a few days, the allergies can come back. Second, the treatment itself is time-consuming and often expensive.

While the jury is still out on immunotherapy, the concept shows promise. However, progressing from concept to proven treatment is clearly going to take much more work. As it stands today, some immunotherapy approaches work for some patients but don’t work for others. Plus, there are questions about how long immunity actually lasts and whether it must be maintained or periodically boosted. This is clearly a very important consideration since patients could run the risk of unknowingly losing immunity and coming into contact with the allergen, allowing it to trigger an unexpected—and potentially serious—attack.

So if you suffer from food allergies and are looking for a way to diminish them, the best advice we can offer at this time is to continue following the research and to consult with your own healthcare providers about the potential benefits and risks in your own case. If you do decide to pursue immunotherapy, be sure that it is being administered and overseen by well-trained medical professionals who can monitor progress and watch for side effects.

 

For Many Kids, Back to School Means Back to the Doctor. Here’s How Parents Can Help

For Many Kids, Back to School Means Back to the Doctor. Here’s How Parents Can Help

school-bus-200-300With Halloween two weeks behind us and Thanksgiving less than two weeks away, most school-age children are back in the classroom and (hopefully) have adapted to the fall routine. For some kids, though, the fall routine includes lots of sick days and doctor visits.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there’s a good reason for this. “Schools inherently foster the transmission of infections from person to person because they are a group setting in which people are in close contact and share supplies and equipment.”

The CDC also provides some statistics that puts this issue in perspective: “Infectious diseases account for millions of school days lost each year for kindergarten through 12th-grade public school students in the United States:

  • 40% of children aged 5–17 years missed 3 or more school days in the past year because of illness or injury.
  • Nearly 22 million school days are lost each year due to colds alone.
  • 38 million school days are lost each year due to the influenza virus.”

Naturally, schoolchildren aren’t the only ones who are affected when even common illnesses are passed from child-to-child in the classroom environment. Those same illnesses (or the microorganisms that cause them) ride home with kids on the bus or in the neighborhood carpool. And when they do, the whole family is at risk. Plus, parents are left to cope with the inconveniences and costs that come with sick days and doctor visits.

Communicable diseases that spike at the beginning of the school year are numerous and include the common cold (aka rhinovirus), the flu, strep throat, Fifth disease (a viral infection caused by the parvovirus), pinkeye, whooping cough (aka pertussis), mono, chicken pox, meningitis, lice, scabies, pinworm, ringworm, jock itch, and athlete’s foot.

Some areas of the country are also concerned with two other viral infections that thrive in crowded areas such as schools. According to Indiana news station WTHR.com, “The first is a viral infection called ‘hand, foot and mouth disease.’ ”

Noted pediatrician Dr. Michael McKenna from the Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health says in regard to hand, foot, and mouth disease, “The rash looks ugly, kids feel uncomfortable, and they can have fevers. The one concern is if they have so many ulcers in their mouth that they refuse to eat or drink, that they can become dehydrated. This year, it’s much more prominent and the rash is much more severe.”

The article continues: “Doctors are also seeing many more cases of shigellosis, a bacterial infection spread when people do not wash their hands after using the bathroom. It can cause diarrhea, nausea and vomiting.”

Children aren’t the only ones at risk for transmittable infections and diseases in and around the classroom—teachers and administrators are also susceptible to many viruses and bacterial infections, which range from simply annoying to very serious. In fact, many teachers quickly get sick upon the arrival of a new school year. For these people, it is important to practice prevention. Minimize contact with students, urge them to cough and sneeze into their elbow, and send them to the nurse if they look as if they may be coming down with something.

So else can parents do to try to keep their kids healthy and at school during the fall and winter months? Here are a few thoughts we’d like to share:

  • Teach your children good hand-washing habits that follow them from home to school and be sure that they wash their hands when they return from school in the afternoon.
  • Explain to your children the importance of keeping their hands away from their eyes, nose and mouth throughout the school day and discourage them from sharing cups, utensils, etc.
  • Encourage your children to eat a healthy, balanced diet that will support their immune system.
  • Make sure your children get plenty of fresh air and exercise. Spending time outside and away from crowded, enclosed areas can help reduce the likelihood of sickness.
  • Set a reasonable bedtime for your children and stick to it. Not only are well-rested kids likely to perform better at school, they’re also more likely to stay healthy.
  • If your children are sick, please keep them home until they are well. This is for the benefit of classmates and teachers, but it’s also for the benefit of your own kids. Children who have not yet completely recovered and return to school to early may be more likely to pick up additional illnesses in the classroom.
Have a Cold? Top Ten Tips for Getting Better Faster

Have a Cold? Top Ten Tips for Getting Better Faster

sick-man-with-thermometer
sick-man-with-thermometer

The common cold: Even though Americans have over a billion colds per year, there’s nothing “common” about it when you’ve got one. The sneezing, the scratchy throat, the runny nose, the nasal congestion, and the watery eyes can make your life miserable. Even though most colds go away within three to seven days, there are steps you can take to boost your body’s immune system and help get rid of your cold sooner than that. Read on for our “Top 10 Tips” on getting over your cold quickly, consolidated from healthcare experts all over the world.

  1. First, make sure you’ve really got a cold. The symptoms listed above are those of the common cold, which is a disease of the upper respiratory tract caused by a number of different viruses. But if these symptoms are accompanied by more severe ones such as muscle aches, high fever, chills, headache, and fatigue, chances may be that it’s not a cold at all, but the flu instead. This is important to find out, because if you have a serious case of the flu, you may need to see a doctor and take an antiviral medication like Tamiflu, which can shorten the length of the outbreak. However, if you’ve got a cold, not only will the antiviral medication be ineffective, it can even weaken your immune system in the long run.
  2. Don’t “tough it out”—stay at home and get some rest. Going to work will only make your cold last longer, and you can expose all your coworkers to the virus as well. So take a few days off and give your body the rest it needs to recover and heal faster.
  3. Drink lots and lots of liquids, including—yes, really—chicken soup. Your mother’s advice to drink lots of fluids was correct, as it turns out. Research has shown that drinking warm fluids helps to relieve the most common cold symptoms and also loosens sinus secretions that cause a buildup of mucus. Hot tea or broth is a good choice, as is coffee, which has been shown to increase alertness in people with colds. And interestingly enough, the centuries-old prescription to “Have a nice bowl of chicken soup.” is also correct—it has been shown to be more hydrating and thus more beneficial than other liquids.
  4. Gargle with salt water. Gargling with 1/2 teaspoon of salt dissolved in 8 ounces of water can help to relieve your sore or scratchy throat.
  5. Use over-the-counter medications (very selectively) to deal with runny nose and coughs. A pharmacy has reliable saline nose drops or sprays and cough syrups that can help to make these cold symptoms more bearable, although they won’t make the cold go away any faster.
  6. Steam the cold away. If you have access to a steam bath, take one—or many. If you don’t, you can improvise by leaning your head over a bowl of hot water or by taking a long, steamy shower. Inhaling warm, moist air helps to loosen and thin out mucus.
  7. Boost your immune system with supplements. Research has shown that taking zinc supplements during the first couple of days may help shorten the duration of your cold and perhaps reduce its severity. But don’t take zinc on an empty stomach, and don’t use intranasal zinc nose drops or sprays; the FDA has warned that they can permanently impair your sense of smell. Vitamin C can also help to shorten colds, whether in supplement form or in fruits and vegetables. Echinacea, elderberry syrup, and raw honey have also been shown to shorten colds.
  8. Avoid smoke and polluted air. Anything that affects your ability to breathe properly is going to extend your cold.
  9. Don’t reinfect yourself or others. Practice “safe sneezing and coughing” by covering your nose and mouth and carefully discarding any tissues you use. Wash your hands often and consider using hand sanitizers to keep from infecting family, friends, coworkers, and yes, even yourself. If you contracted the cold at work and others there still have their colds, avoid the place for a few days if you can until people get better.
  1. Use over-the-counter pain relievers to reduce inflammation. Used in moderation, aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and naproxen can all help relieve minor bodily aches that may accompany your cold, but they also act as anti-inflammatories and can reduce a fever and speed up the healing process.
Pets, Kids and Immune System Health

Pets, Kids and Immune System Health

young-girl-and-cat-200-300Over the past few years, health researchers around the world have become increasingly interested in exactly how our immune system develops. In particular, they want to understand how it might be shaped by the environment we live in—and especially by our interactions with microbes. One theory, known as the “hygiene hypothesis,” posits that reduced exposure to bacteria, symbiotic microorganisms (for instance, the flora that live in our digestive tract) and parasites makes us more susceptible to allergic diseases by suppressing the natural development of our immune system.

The basic idea is that modern standards of household and personal cleanliness, smaller family units and less outdoor time have all combined to limit the number and types of microbes many of us come into contact with, and that this has resulted in more people having immune systems that are over-sensitive or calibrated incorrectly. This line of thinking leads to an interesting question: Do people who have been exposed to more or different types of microbes actually have stronger immune systems?  One way researchers have approached this question is to study individuals who have spent more time with animals (pets) or in the company of lots of children.

The Pet Effect

A recent Finnish study performed by researchers at Kuopio University Hospital found that babies who grow up in a home that has a pet are less likely to get coughs and colds in their first year of life than their counterparts who live in pet-free homes. Lead author of the study, Dr. Eija Bergroth, a pediatrician at the university, said, “We think the exposure to pets somehow matures the immune system so when the child meets the microbes, he might be better prepared for them.” Researchers believe that the dander that pets shed and the microbes that they bring in from outdoors prime babies’ newly-forming immune systems, teaching them to fend off allergies, bacteria and viruses.

Previous studies had found a link between the presence of pets in a baby’s home and a lower risk of allergies. And in a study performed on mice, exposure to household dust from a home in which a dog lived prevented a common respiratory virus that has been linked to the development of childhood asthma.

Researchers from the Finnish study, published in the journal Pediatrics, followed the health of 397 Finnish children during their first year of life. Parents recorded the state of their child’s health on a weekly basis, including any runny noses, coughing and ear infections. They also noted if the child took any antibiotics. The results of the study found that children with pets in the home had a 44% lower risk of contracting an ear infection and were 29% less likely to be prescribed antibiotics, when compared with babies from pet-free homes.

The type of pet in the home did make a difference in how likely babies were to become ill during their first year. Dogs in the home were associated with a 31% lower risk of illness in the first year, whereas the presence of cats in the home was associated with only a 6% improvement in risk. The greatest benefit was from outdoor pets (those that were not restricted only to the indoors), as they brought in a wider array of microbes on their fur.

According to researchers, early exposure to pets seems to be the key in developing greater resistance to microbes, as it is the time that a child’s immune system is learning to differentiate friendly from unfriendly microbes, and by getting a wide array of these in small amounts, babies’ immune systems become well-trained early on.

The Kid Effect

Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but many moms and dads (as well as teachers and childcare workers) believe that being around young children boosts their immune system.  It’s easy to see why this idea has some popular appeal.  After all, young children typically have lots of contact with other young children, often in environments where lots of germs can be spread. They then bring these same germs into contact with adults, whose immune systems need to fight them off over a sustained period of time. The thinking goes that this, in turn, helps make these adults more resistant to them.

But what does the science actually say about this? Rigorous research is hard to come by, but perhaps the best anecdotal evidence can be found in the “common wisdom” imparted to new kindergarten and elementary school teachers. When one woman started teaching in California, her school board warned her that she should probably plan her finances for the first year of teaching based on being out sick more than her allotted number of “sick days,” and thus not being paid for them. The woman, who had always been remarkably healthy, laughed at this advice, but then spent 25% of her first year at home sick, likely because of all the germs she picked up from kids in the classroom.

However, this same schoolteacher rarely ever got sick again. Her exposure to a wide variety of germs transmitted by the kids did seem to boost her immune system over time, and enhanced her ability to be exposed to them in the future without getting sick herself. We can possibly infer that the same thing happens with small children in the home—they pick up germs at school and bring them home where the parents are exposed to them. This exposure then builds immunity over time rather than diminishing it. Dr. Jordan S. Orange, chief of immunology, allergy and rheumatology at Texas Children’s Hospital explains the simple mechanics of this “early exposure” process this way: “When you get it [immunity], you have it. So, if you get it earlier, you’re going to be immune earlier.”

Keys to Strengthening Your Immune System

Keys to Strengthening Your Immune System

Three girlfriends in white T-shorts jump having waved hands
Three girlfriends in white T-shorts jump having waved hands

We are bombarded daily with all sorts of microbes that can cause illness. Interestingly, if we are exposed to a wide range of these microbes as children, studies have shown that we will have a lower risk of asthma and allergies as well as a stronger immune system. There are a number of factors that influence the health of our immune system, including diet, stress, exercise and aging. Following are some strategies you can use to help strengthen your immune system.

Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables – These are high in the vitamins, minerals and trace elements you need to help keep you healthy, particularly those high in vitamin C (red bell peppers, strawberries, broccoli, citrus fruits) and zinc (nuts, seeds, wheat germ).

Reduce stress – Chronic stress has been shown to inhibit the production of interleukins and cytokines, which are responsible for stimulating the action of white blood cells. Chronic stress also causes the stress hormone cortisol to be continually released into the bloodstream, which in the long term suppresses the production of pathogen-fighting T cells and antibodies.

Get out in the sun – Insufficient vitamin D has been linked to greater susceptibility to infection. Approximately one out of three Americans is deficient in vitamin D. Try to get out in the sun in the summer months wearing minimal clothing and no sunscreen for 5 to 10 minutes two or three times a week between the hours of 10 am and 3 pm. This will provide you with sufficient vitamin D without increasing your risk of skin cancer. You can also take a supplement in the winter months or if you live in a place without much sun.

Get sufficient sleep – Sleep deprivation increases inflammation and inhibits the immune response. One study found that people who habitually slept less than seven hours each night were nearly three times more likely to catch a cold than people who slept eight hours or more.

Exercise – Moderate exercise has been shown to decrease stress and boost the immune system. Thirty minutes of moderate exercise each day, such as a brisk walk, raises the body’s levels of leukocytes, which are cells that help guard against infection.

Eat probiotics – Perhaps even more important than antibiotics in the fight against infection are probiotics, beneficial bacteria that live in the gut and upper respiratory tract. They boost the immune system by encouraging the production of certain T cells. You can find probiotics in yogurt, sauerkraut and kimchi, or you can take a probiotic supplement.

Avoid sugar – Even 100 grams of sugar, the equivalent of a 24-oz soda, depresses your immune system by reducing the ability of white blood cells to combat bacteria. This effect can last for a few hours after sugar ingestion, so if you are trying to stay healthy, keep away from the sweets!

Do We Really Get Sick More Often During the Winter?

Do We Really Get Sick More Often During the Winter?

i`m ill seriesAlthough your mother may have admonished you when you to bundle up when you went outside during the winter to avoid getting a cold, science shows that this advice is actually pretty ineffective. While it seems to be true that people tend to get sick more often during winter, it has nothing to do with getting a chill. Scientists do have a few alternative explanations for this phenomenon.

First of all, we tend to spend a lot more time indoors when it’s cold outside. Germs are spread far more easily in a crowd or within enclosed spaces. The more people in an enclosed space with a sick person, the more people with an opportunity to become infected. However, this doesn’t explain why children in crowded classrooms get sick more often during winter months, even when the number of students present in the classroom may not change much (or at all) from season to season.

One aspect of winter conditions is that the air is colder and drier. Dry air dehydrates our nasal passages and makes it more difficult for the mucus membranes in our respiratory system to trap and sweep away pathogens, which it typically does more effectively in a warmer, more humid environment. This is one reason why travelers often become ill after enduring a long plane flight– the atmosphere of the cabin is very dry. Add this to the combination we talked about before (lots of people in an enclosed space for a prolonged period of time), and it’s easy to see why a cold virus or flu virus would have a much easier time infecting more individuals in this sort of situation.

In addition, a study has shown that the flu virus in particular survives far longer in cool, dry conditions than in warm ones. Peter Palese and colleagues at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York conducted an experiment on guinea pigs. They found that when guinea pigs were exposed to the flu virus they infected each other quite easily in cool, dry air, but when the temperature was 86°F the guinea pigs could not infect one another at all.

Another theory advanced by some scientists is that in winter our bodies are often low in stores of vitamin D due to a lack of sunlight. Vitamin D deficiency has been shown to cause a reduction in immunity. Given that much of the population in the developed world lives at latitudes where even direct sun is often weak in winter and that these same people are more likely to use sunscreen, it’s not surprising that many don’t have enough vitamin D. Studies show that flu season in different parts of the world correlates with cold weather and short hours of daylight. In the northern hemisphere, cold and flu season runs from November to March, and in the southern hemisphere from May to September. Meanwhile, the tropics have no cold and flu season at all.

Another contributor to a lowered immune system is sugar intake. Around the holidays, people not only find themselves gathering in large groups more frequently (think about office festivities, family celebrations, crowded shopping malls, etc.), but there are also more sweets to be had, which also works to suppress our immune system.

According to health experts, the best thing you can do to avoid winter colds and flu is to wash your hands frequently, since germ-covered hands are the most common way we infect ourselves. It’s not necessary to keep your house at tropical temperatures, but a humidifier may help reduce the drying out of your respiratory passages. Finally, taking a vitamin D supplement and keeping the sweets to a minimum may help reduce the number of times you get sick each year.

Keys to Strengthening Your Immune System

Keys to Strengthening Your Immune System

Three girlfriends in white T-shorts jump having waved handsWe are bombarded daily with all sorts of microbes that can cause illness. Interestingly, if we are exposed to a wide range of these microbes as children, studies have shown that we will have a lower risk of asthma and allergies as well as a stronger immune system. There are a number of factors that influence the health of our immune system, including diet, stress, exercise and aging. Following are some strategies you can use to help strengthen your immune system.

Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables – These are high in the vitamins, minerals and trace elements you need to help keep you healthy, particularly those high in vitamin C (red bell peppers, strawberries, broccoli, citrus fruits) and zinc (nuts, seeds, wheat germ).

Reduce stress – Chronic stress has been shown to inhibit the production of interleukins and cytokines, which are responsible for stimulating the action of white blood cells. Chronic stress also causes the stress hormone cortisol to be continually released into the bloodstream, which in the long term suppresses the production of pathogen-fighting T cells and antibodies.

Get out in the sun/Make sure you get enough Vitamin D – Insufficient vitamin D has been linked to greater susceptibility to infection. Approximately one out of three Americans is deficient in vitamin D. Try to get out in the sun in the summer months wearing minimal clothing and no sunscreen for 5 to 10 minutes two or three times a week between the hours of 10 am and 3 pm. This will provide you with sufficient vitamin D without increasing your risk of skin cancer. You can also take a supplement in the winter months or if you live in a place without much sun.

Get sufficient sleep – Sleep deprivation increases inflammation and inhibits the immune response. One study found that people who habitually slept less than seven hours each night were nearly three times more likely to catch a cold than people who slept eight hours or more.

Exercise – Moderate exercise has been shown to decrease stress and boost the immune system. Thirty minutes of moderate exercise each day, such as a brisk walk, raises the body’s  levels of leukocytes, which are cells that help guard against infection.

Eat probiotics – Perhaps even more important than antibiotics in the fight against infection are probiotics, beneficial bacteria that live in the gut and upper respiratory tract. They boost the immune system by encouraging the production of certain T cells. You can find probiotics in yogurt, sauerkraut and kimchi, or you can take a probiotic supplement.

 
Avoid sugar – Even 100 grams of sugar, the equivalent of a 24-oz soda, depresses your immune system by reducing the ability of white blood cells to combat bacteria. This effect can last for a few hours after sugar ingestion, so if you are trying to stay healthy, keep away from the sweets!