Top 9 ways to avoid respiratory infections

There are things we can all do to help protect ourselves during this coronavirus pandemic.  While COVID-19 should certainly be taken seriously, many of the best prevention methods are the simplest.  There has not been enough research on the virus that causes COVID-19 (which is called SARS-COV-2 or severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-2) to know what actually has proven protective benefit.  So again, the recommendations are based on what is known about the common cold and similar viral infections and smart common sense recommendations to help prevent infection or boost our immune system.  The information below is not to substitute for updated information from CDC or the World Health Organization.

  1.  Hand washing.  Washing your hands in soapy water for 20 seconds is quite effective against bacterial and viruses.  Studies show that regular soap may be just as effective as anti-bacterial soap.  Seems simple, but apparently only 5% of people wash for 20 minutes in soapy water.  That’s the equivalent of singing the “Happy Birthday To You” song twice.  The importance of washing thoroughly and frequently cannot be overstated.
  2. Social distancing.  Since droplets are the method of transmission, we are much less likely to become infected if we maintain several feet of distance from someone who is contagious.  Unfortunately, this particular infection can apparently be spread from those who are asymptomatic, so thus our challenge.  It is an important, but hopefully very temporary, step we must all take to slow the rate of transmission.
  3. Hand sanitizers.  Alcohol based hand sanitizers (at least 60% alcohol) are also effective against bacteria and most viruses.  While it appears effective against coronavirus, it is not very effective at all against norovirus, known to cause diarrhea.  Something to keep in mind on a cruise ship!
  4. Face masks and barriers.  The vast majority of viruses are spread by droplets and not technically considered “airborne.”  So being several feet away OR wearing a surgical mask around someone who is contagious does offer some protection, but our hands are more likely to be the culprits since droplets land on surfaces we touch; then we touch our faces and mouths.  In fact, we touch our faces more often to adjust a surgical mask when we wear one, so it could potentially backfire.  So hand washing and keeping our distance is crucial for us all.  Of course for those who must be in contact with someone highly suspected of having the infection, wearing a mask, gown, and gloves are also indicated.  And an individual who has a known infection is advised to wear an N-95 mask to protect others.
  5. Sleep.  Sounds so simple, right?  Numerous studies show that sleep deprivation result in impaired immunity.  This is partly due to increased cortisol production, but also other factors that affect our immune response.  If you can’t get 8 hours, maybe 6 hours could work.  Remember a sleep cycle is about 90 minutes, so you may feel rested after sleeping a multiple of 90 minutes (e.g. 3hrs, 6 hrs, etc.).
  6. Nutrition.  While we often consider “healthy” foods those with less of this and less of that, maybe its time to re-think things a just bit.  Nourishing foods are necessary for our cells to function properly.  Healthy fats, proteins, vitamins, and minerals are required for normal function.  While a starchy, food may be low in calories, low fat, and even low in sugar, it lacks the nutrients necessary for proper immune function.
  7. Exercise.  This could be one of the more overlooked aspects of maintaining your immune system.  Just as we feel better with regular exercise, our bodies perform better on a cellular level.  Our cells burn energy more effectively and we manage inflammation more effectively as well.  It is wise to keep a healthy exercise routine, as it could help alleviate stress as well.
  8. Vitamin C.  Numerous studies show that vitamin C has benefit in prevention of “colds” and shortening their duration.  It turns out, that many of the studies are dose-related, showing greater benefit at high doses.  It may be most effective before symptoms even begin, by helping our white blood cells provide better defense.
  9. Vitamin D.  While we think of vitamin D for healthy bones, it does much more!  We now know that there are vitamin D receptors on most of our cells, and it appears to have a critical role in our immune response.  In fact, vitamin D is more like a hormone than a vitamin.  It is important for proper immune signaling.  Many feel that one reason colds are more common in winter (when there’s less sunlight) is because we have lower vitamin D levels.

Other considerations include nutritional deficiencies (such as zinc), metabolic imbalances that impair immune function, certain medications we take, and even hormone imbalances.  As many of these are not as universal and may require monitoring, a wellness consultation may provide a more tailored recommendation for each individual.

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Ron Bryant, MD
Dr. Bryant is a board-certified Internist and wellness physician in the Texas Medical Center with over 20 years of experience. He has special interest and passion for issues of nutrition, metabolism, and hormone balance as they relate to helping clients achieve optimum health.

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