Choices are key to staying healthy during the winter

January 28, 2004|by LYNN F. LITTLE

The cold and flu season is in full swing and it's a bad one. Flu shots are good idea, but all of us can reduce our chances of getting and spreading colds and influenza by following simple practices.

Wash hands often

When it comes to warding off a cold or the flu, one of the most important things to do is to wash your hands frequently and thoroughly. We tend to associate washing hands with preventing foodborne illness, but it also is a good way to reduce the risk of receiving and spreading germs.

While washing your hands seems like such a simple practice, it's not something children (or adults) intuitively know to do. It is a practice, however, that can be taught with far-reaching results. For example, in a study completed at Purdue University, illnesses and symptoms of infectious diseases were followed in two day-care centers for 11 weeks to establish a baseline, then the teachers in one center received an educational program and training materials on washing hands. In the 11 weeks that followed, the children who had received the training had a significantly lower incidence of colds and flu than the children who did not receive the training and continued to use usual care methods.


Health professionals recommend you wet your hands with warm water, apply soap and rub your hands together for 20 seconds, cleaning up to your elbows if possible. Next, rinse thoroughly to remove all soap residue, dry with a single-use paper towel and use the towel to turn off the faucet and open the bathroom door.

Stay hydrated

Staying hydrated is important both in flushing out potential toxins and in helping get through a cold or the flu. Unfortunately, unlike the summer months when the hot sun makes a tall glass of water or iced tea sound refreshing, it's easy to overlook the importance of drinking plenty of fluids when it's cold outside. Dehydration can pose as much risk in the dead of winter as it can in July.

Common symptoms of dehydration include fatigue, headache, dry nasal passages, dry, cracked lips and overall discomfort. However, by the time you become aware of these symptoms, dehydration has set in. To avoid dehydration, drink at least 6 to 8 cups of liquid daily, part of which can come from water, fruits, vegetables, fruit juices, milk, coffee and tea.

Make healthy food choices

In general, people tend to eat more during the winter, which ultimately can lead to unwanted weight gain. Following basic nutrition advice to eat a balanced diet containing plenty of whole grains, fruits and vegetables and less sweets and high-fat snack foods can help prevent this weight gain and also ensure that your diet is high in disease-fighting antioxidants.

Stay active

When it's cold and snowy outside, a jog around the block or bicycling to work doesn't sound tempting. However, regular exercise will help keep your immune system strong. There are plenty of alternative ways to keep yourself active during the colder months. If you prefer to stay inside where it is warmer, check out your local recreation center. There may be indoor basketball courts, indoor tracks, indoor swimming pools and weight rooms available to the public. For those who choose to venture into the cold, try cross-country skiing, snowshoeing or skating for something fun and different to do.

By washing your hands, drinking plenty of fluids, eating nutritiously and staying active, you will have a better chance of staying healthy this winter.

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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