While winter in Minnesota seems to last nine months of the year, the risk for increased sinus and influenza infections are greatest November through March. One of the main reasons for more infections during the peak of the winter season is more indoor time, as well as the ability of many viruses and bacteria to survive in frozen to semi-frozen droplets in the air.
With more holiday travels in airplanes and
indoor celebrations, there is even increased opportunities for spread of
infections. So what are 10 things you can do to decrease your risk of
getting a sinus infection or the flu?
1. Wash your hands often
Many viruses and bacteria are contracted by a person touching a contaminated surface and then touching their bodies and subsequently getting ill. When you wash your hands, you decrease the bacteria and virus count that your immune system has to deal with.
Minimize touching your face and/or rubbing your nose. This puts any bacteria or virus remaining on your hands in closer contact to being inhaled into your system, as well as increasing the transmission of any illness you might have to others.
Purchase small bottles of hand sanitizers to
carry with you so that if water is not available you are still able to clean
your hands regularly, including before eating.
2. Rinse your nose with saline nasal sprays
These are available over the counter and should be used without any decongestant as additive, although additives such as grapeseed oil or xylitol can add to the lubrication and effectiveness of the sprays. Similar to washing your hands, when you rinse your nose the concentration of virus and bacteria that you have inhaled is lessened.
If you are new to saline sprays, try buying smaller bottles of different strengths to see which you prefer, or try using saline gel. Many people use a Neti pot for added humidity and nasal irrigation. These can be great avenues for nasal moisture and cleaning, but they also have the potential for negative consequences if they are not cleaned regularly.
On average, your Neti pot should be cleaned at least every other day using some combination of soap and water, vinegar and water, and sterilization in the dishwasher. What is often not known is that tap water should not be used in the Neti pot or to make up your own saline irrigation unless it has been boiled, or distilled water should be used.
3. Get vaccinated, including your yearly flu vaccine
There are various forms of the flu vaccine, from
nasal mist to an injection. Do whatever form your provider and you agree
upon, but by getting the flu vaccine, you arm your body with improved defenses
to decrease your chances of getting the more common forms of influenza.
4. Cover your cough
Learn to sneeze downward into your forearm or
underarm area and not into your hands. By doing so you protect the public with
less aerosolizing or spreading your illness. Also if you are sick, avoid
exposing others if at all possible by limiting your time in crowds or group
settings and practicing some of the measures mentioned here.
Adequate sleep is necessary for the body to rejuvenate and be better prepared to fight off infections. When you are not sleeping properly, your cortisol or stress hormone elevates, and this all by itself makes you less able to handle the stress that comes with fighting off an infection.
Also, during sleep many of the supporting
hormones and factors that are important for a healthy immune system are
increased. It is not just an old wife’s tale to sleep or rest more when
you are sick. It is a chance for your body to rejuvenate and heal itself.
6. Eat a balanced diet and stay hydrated
Although fresh fruits and vegetables are more
difficult to find and more expensive during winter months, it is important to
incorporate leafy green vegetables and fruits high in vitamin C to help support
our bodies defenses against viral and bacterial infections. Adequate water
intake may seems less intuitive because it is not hot and you are not sweating
as often. However, there is still body moisture lost from daily activities
and shivering, so staying hydrated is important even in winter months.
7. CPAP users (a treatment for sleep apnea)
Increase the sterilization of your equipment
during the winter months, especially if there is any nasal sniffling or symptoms
of onset of sinusitis. Sterilizing equipment daily will decrease the
chances of bacteria settling in the tubing and/or humidifier chamber, causing
more constant infections.
8. Wash bedding regularly
Especially after any illness, put your pillows
in the dryer for 60 minutes cycle or encase them in a plastic bag that is tied and
left in the garage for several days to help with their sterilization.
9. Open windows and doors
For short periods of time, air out and ventilate
the house. This will help to decrease bacterial and viral counts indoors,
especially when multiple family members become ill and seem to pass it around
to each other. Invest in air purifiers. Avoid sharing utensils.
10. Visit your doctor or healthcare provider
Sometimes despite your best effort to avoid exposures, practice good hygiene and follow a healthy diet, you may still contract an illness and need medical intervention for symptoms of cough, yellow or green nasal drainage, and/or worsening fevers that are not improving, especially after three days of symptoms. Sometimes the intervention may be antibiotics and/or medicated nasal sprays such as nasal steroids or antihistamines or cough suppressants.
Your healthcare provider will discuss options with you to assist with your speedy recovery.
Despite my love-hate relationship with winter, I encourage you (and myself) to get outside as much as possible, to be active and find activities that you enjoy doing even in winter!
Dr. Inell Rosario was born and raised on Andros, an island in the Bahamas. She graduated from Macalester College in 1987 with a Bachelor of Arts and went on to attend medical school at the University of Minnesota. She is board-certified in otolaryngology, head and neck surgery, and sleep medicine. She is the president of Andros ENT & Sleep Center. When she isn’t working at the clinic, Dr. Rosario likes to exercise, play basketball, and do mission work. She is married and has two children.