Nothing ruins the holiday season quite like an unwelcome visit from a virus. Colds, the flu and gastrointestinal upsets are all caused by viruses that seem to knock us off our feet just when we should be shining up our faces for a round of Christmas meet and greet. This hardly seems fair. So Canadian Living went to a few experts to learn their secrets on how to beat back the germs and stay healthy for the duration of this holiday season -- and beyond.
Our expert panel unanimously agreed on the big secret to staying healthy during the long, cold winter when it seems everyone around you is down with sniffles, coughs and fevers.
The big secret
Since there's no real magic bullet against flu, colds and norovirus infections (the ones that cause the gastrointestinal upsets that are characterized by diarrhea), what is the secret to staying healthy over the holidays? Wash your hands! Not convinced?
We carry most cold and flu viruses on our hands. Think about what happens when you shake hands with someone who has a cold virus, or when you get on a subway or bus and grab hold of a pole (which 10 people, maybe several with colds, have already touched in the previous five minutes). Their cold virus is now likely transferred to the pole, where you pick it up. How about when you grab a door handle?
While viruses aren't all that hardy, they can survive long enough on hard surfaces to be picked up by others. Once on your hands, it's only a matter of time before they find a route to infect you: after all, you rub your eyes, touch your nose or put your fingers in your mouth, says Sandra Callery, a nurse and director of infection prevention and control at Sunnybrook and Women's College Health Sciences Centre in Toronto.
In the case of norovirus infections, food handlers who are infected contaminate the food or the surfaces on which the food is prepared.
"Before you rub your eyes or before you eat or handle food, wash your hands," says Dr. Sue Lim, an infectious disease physician and assistant director of infection control at the University Health Network in Toronto. "Washing reduces your risk of infection and the risk of passing on an infection to others."
Aye: Here's the rub
• The most important thing to remember about hand washing is that it's the mechanical action of rubbing your hands together with soap under running water that removes viruses from your hands. Just using a lot of soap without water and rubbing will not do the job.
• Don't forget your thumb and little finger -- digits that are frequently missed. And remember to wash the back of your hands as well as the palms.
• Sing yourself a little ditty as you wash (Callery suggests "Row, Row, Row Your Boat"). Or count to 10. This advice will help people wash properly, but many won't follow it. As an alternative, put out an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, found in most drugstores, for your guests to use at holiday get-togethers. Some people even put it out in the open at the head of the buffet table to encourage its use. The alcohol kills the viruses, and the emollients in the sanitizer prevent the skin from drying out.
You may also want to keep a pocket-size container of hand sanitizer with you at all times. "Because," says Callery, "if you can't remember when you last washed your hands, it's time to do it again. Proper hand hygiene is so simple people don't believe it is as effective as it is. Believe it."
For more information, read How to keep a cold to yourself.
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The best treatments
The common cold, with symptoms such as a runny nose and sneezing, is usually caused by a rhinovirus, of which there are many in circulation; they are also continually changing and adapting.
The same is true of the noroviruses, which cause gastrointestinal upsets, and flu viruses.
Nothing -- and that includes antibiotics -- will cure a viral infection; antibiotics are only effective against bacterial infections.
The best treatment for all three illnesses is bed rest, plenty of fluids, whatever food you can eat and the tincture of time.
Our pharmacist expert, Leslie Braden of Pharma Plus Drugmarts in Barrie, Ont., also suggests using a cool-air mist humidifier in the sickroom. The large water molecules it releases into the air will help relieve the congestion associated with the common cold. And while over-the-counter cough syrups, decongestants and fever reducers (such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen) won't cure what ails you, they can help relieve the symptoms of a cold and make you more comfortable, says Braden. Always "check with your family physician or pharmacist before giving any medication to a child under two years of age," she says. "And tell your pharmacist what other medications the ill person is taking. This includes any natural or herbal remedies." Natural does not mean something is safe or is without the potential to interact with other medications.
As for the so-called natural remedies many people turn to at this time of year, the consensus of the medical community is that there is not yet sufficient widely accepted scientific evidence that they prevent colds or flu or significantly reduce the severity of symptoms associated with them.
"I wish there were a magic remedy for colds and flu," says Lim. "No doubt many traditional products have potent effects. But there are not a lot of large, controlled, randomized studies that offer proof that these products have a demonstrable effect on health. The placebo effect plays some role. Especially if you want them to work."
If you still believe, click here to see popular alternative flu and cold treatments.
How to read your symptoms
While viruses cause flu, colds and gastrointestinal (GI) infections, the symptoms of each illness are different. With the flu, you'll experience a high fever, extreme fatigue, aching joints and myalgia (muscle pain). You'll feel these effects throughout your entire body. It's common for the flu to lay you low for a week or more, and its effects may linger for an additional week or two.
With the common cold, the centre of action is the upper respiratory system. A sore throat, runny nose and lots of congestion in your chest will leave you feeling like a crash test dummy. But you won't have the high fever and body aches that come with the flu. Typically, the worst of a cold is over within 72 to 96 hours. However, some colds can persist at a low level for as long as a couple of weeks. "I've had a cold last for a month," says Lim. "It's nothing to worry about."
As for a norovirus GI infection, common symptoms are nausea, vomiting and watery diarrhea. Symptoms also may include fever and stomach cramps. Severe illness or hospitalization is uncommon, and most infected individuals recover in two to three days.
Your province's flu vaccine policy
Whether you're eligible to receive a publicly funded flu vaccine depends on where you live. In Ontario, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories the flu vaccine is free to all residents. At a minimum, other provinces offer free vaccines to people 65 and over, residents of nursing homes and other chronic care facilities, health-care workers, as well as children and adults with various chronic conditions, including HIV, heart disease, asthma, diabetes, renal disease and cancer.
In addition, Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia provide free vaccinations to babies between the ages of six and 23 months.
For the latest information about the flu vaccine and its availability where you live, visit the Canada Health Portal at chp-pcs.gc.ca.
You can't get the flu from the vaccine because it's made from inactivated or killed viruses from the three strains predicted to be in widest circulation, says Lim. Since the virus strains change every year and protection from the vaccine decreases over time, it'simportant to be immunized every year.
While the vaccine is harmless, some people may experience a mild reaction at the local injection site or a mild fever because their immune system is stimulated. In order to reduce these symptoms, consider taking acetaminophen just before you get a flu shot, says Lim.
The National Advisory Committee on Immunization suggests that only people with a serious acute illness and a fever should have their vaccine deferred, and that all others, including those with mild upper respiratory tract infections, such as the common cold, be given the vaccine. However, Lim and many other health professionals prefer that you get vaccinated when you feel 100 per cent. "Not because the vaccine will make you worse, but because if you feel under the weather and the shot makes your arm hurt, you may say 'That was horrible, I'm never getting the shot again,'" says Kim.
As for the viruses that cause the common cold and the gastrointestinal upsets sometimes referred to as "stomach flu," there is, unfortunately, no vaccine to protect you.
Why do we get sick in winter?
In Canada the prime season for colds and flu runs from November to March, with the number of reported flu cases peaking in January and February. This is not to say that you can't catch the flu or a cold during the summer. You can. It's just that during the winter, people tend to spend more time indoors close to one another, which makes it easier for viruses to spread.
"As the weather changes and people begin to stay inside, there is a greater risk of transmission," says Callery.
To protect yourself and your family from influenza, the experts strongly recommend that you get immunized. Each year the World Health Organization determines which three strains of influenza are the most likely to be in wide circulation during the coming winter. Based on this information, a vaccine is formulated and produced to protect against these influenza types. The vaccines to be marketed in Canada for the 2005-06 flu season contain A/New Caledonia/20/99 (H1N1), A/New York/55/2004 (H3N2) and B/Jiangsu/10/2003 virus antigens.
"My advice," says Callery, "is that soon after Thanksgiving you begin to think vaccine for Christmas. The reason we recommend an early start -- the vaccine campaign begins in mid- to late October -- is that it takes 10 days to two weeks for the vaccine to give you full protection." If you haven't got your shot, yet, better late than never.