It’s that time of year again when the common cold and flu begins being passed from one person to the next. Each year the common cold affects the average person two times, and can affect the fire rescue athlete even more. The sneezing, coughing, sore throat, and runny nose leave you wanting to curl up under the bed covers. To avoid this misery, prevention is the best cure. So with over 200 mutating cold-causing viruses floating around, what’s a fire rescue athlete to do to avoid getting sick? While in our profession it can be hard to dodge every germ, there are proactive ways to boost your immune system and help prevent catching a cold or the flu. Take a look at these 10 ways:
- Wash Hands Frequently. One of the most effective ways to prevent colds and the flu is simply washing your hands properly and frequently. Wash your hands and encourage those around you to do the same. Most cold viruses are spread through direct contact. Shaking hands and touching doorknobs, keyboards, and telephones are all easy ways to catch germs. Wash hands as often as possible, scrubbing with soap and hot water for at least 20 seconds. Keep hand sanitizer available for when hand washing is not possible.
- Wipe Down Germy Areas. It's common sense not to shake hands or get near a sick person but we as EMTs, Paramedics and Firefighters have no choice. We all know that we will inevitably be in contact with ill people at some time throughout our shift. To reduce exposures and spreading germs it’s imperative to properly wipe down equipment and rigs often. Don’t be afraid to thoroughly wipe down the firehouse as well. Wipe down germy areas — light switches, doorknobs, the phone, computer keyboard, and your TV remote — with your favorite cleaning product. Minimizing exposure to germs can help prevent colds and the flu.
- Drink Plenty of Fluids. General good health practices keep your body strong and ready to fend off cold germs and the flu virus and this especially includes drinking plenty of water. In fact, one recent study found that staying hydrated may boost a particular immune response to enable your body to better fight the viruses. Stay hydrated by drinking a lot of fluids, especially water, and by avoiding caffeinated drinks. Shoot for six to eight glasses of water per day, more if you consume caffeinated beverages.
- Exercise to Strengthen Your Immunity. Exercise not only makes you perform your job better as a fire rescue athlete, but it also boosts your immune system. Additionally, warding off extra weight is important for overall health, particularly when it comes to preventing colds and flu. A recent study found that overweight and obese people were more likely to fall ill or be injured. Not only does exercise (need a workout, click here) improve the circulation of white blood cells throughout your body, but it has been shown to increase the production of natural killer T cells, which are essential for maintaining an optimum immune response. The amount of exercise required to obtain an immune boost is relatively low, 20 minutes of brisk walking 4-5 times per week has been shown to significantly improve the body’s immune response. This is also a good opportunity to get a little bit of sunshine to stimulate Vitamin D production.
- Get Plenty of Sleep. This can be difficult for the fire rescue athlete especially when the tones go off numerous times throughout the night. It is important to get as much sleep as possible especially on those days away from the firehouse. Studies have found that getting enough sleep is essential for healthy immune function and that insufficient sleep or poor sleep quality is associated with lowered immune function. Ultimately you want to get at least 8 hours each night. There is hope for those of us that can’t sleep through the night, recent research shows that napping can boost health and the immune system.
- Add Some Sunshine. Researchers are quickly catching on that Vitamin D may be the secret to avoiding the cold and flu. Vitamin D plays an important role in strengthening your defence system to better fight any invading viruses and bacteria. Unfortunately, it is also the number one vitamin deficiency in Americans. Compounding the problem is the fact that Vitamin D is produced when the body gets adequate levels of sunshine; so naturally, even less is produced in the winter months. It has recently been hypothesized that this could be one major reason for the increase in cold and flu cases during the winter season. Because of this, it’s important that we have other ways of getting this powerful immune boosting vitamin. So here are some solutions. Spend 15 minutes per day in the sun without any sunscreen on if possible and for those that are in climates that don’t allow you to be outside much then supplement with a Vitamin D3 supplement. Experts suggest that you consume 2,000 IU per day to fight off the seasonal flu and to make sure your Vitamin D levels in your body are at a therapeutic level. Of course check with your doctor regarding your individual Vitamin D levels and health plan.
- Put down the sugar. When it comes to fighting cold and flu, it is essential to decrease your amount of sugar intake. Sugar has devastating effects on the immune system, and the fact that Americans consume an average of 2-3 pounds of sugar per person every year spells bad news come cold and flu season. Not only does sugar increase the production of hormones that suppress the immune system, refined sugar needs micronutrients to be metabolized. This requires your body to use stored vitamins and minerals, further harming your defences. Instead of eating high sugar foods try eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. This will make sure that your body is getting all of the vitamins and minerals that are essential to fighting of the cold and flu. Each and every fruit and vegetable is packed with thousands of phytochemicals. No supplement could ever match the power of eating a whole food.
- Spend time outdoors. Germs thrive in closed areas, so take time each day to step out for a breath of fresh air. In addition, central heating systems dry out the air and subsequently your body, leaving you more susceptible to germs. Running a humidifier in cold months will add moisture back into the air. Getting outside will also help you get some Vitamin D.
- Vitamin C supplementation. There are a lot of vitamins and minerals that can help boost your immune system but Vitamin C seems to be the typical staple in most people’s “immune booster” arsenal. Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that provides support to your immune system but unfortunately it is often times consumed in the form of orange juice. An 8 oz glass of orange juice contains just 70mg of Vitamin C, while loaded with 30 grams of sugar (carbs). As a comparison, 8 oz of Coca-Cola contains just 26 grams of sugar. In place of orange juice, opt for an actual orange (medium size = 70mg of Vitamin C) or some Vitamin C powder (~1,000 mg of Vitamin C) mixed with filtered water or sparkling mineral water. These options save a ton of empty calories, reduce sugar consumption yet still sooth your cold symptoms!
- Chicken Soup, Mom, and a good laugh. I know that these things aren't backed with research but chicken soup warms the spirit, TLC from Mom is always helpful and laughing can’t hurt (see the quote below).
“A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor's book.”
I hope this list can help you avoid the dreaded flu and cold. If you need some suggestions on exercise or fitness for the fire rescue athlete click here to get my FREE 28-day Firefighter Workout and Nutrition Guide.