Health Matters: Help protect yourself from illness this winter

Dr. Ashley Coggins

November 14, 2022

As we look to other health systems in the East and South, we’re seeing a significant uptick in adult and pediatric hospitalizations due to common illnesses such as influenza, Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), rhinovirus and COVID-19. While we haven’t yet seen a drastic increase in those numbers locally, we are preparing for what we think will could be a rough cold and flu season for our community this year.

I am an internal medicine physician and work as a hospitalist who cares for people who have to spend time in the hospital due to these types of infections. So what can you do to help keep yourself and your loved ones healthy and out of the hospital?

Get vaccinated

While there are viruses out there that you cannot get a vaccine for like RSV or rhinovirus, it’s important to vaccinate yourself against the ones you can this season. This includes the flu, or influenza, and COVID-19.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that they are seeing the highest levels of flu-related hospitalizations in over a decade, with an estimated 880,000 cases of lab-confirmed cases, 6,900 hospitalizations and 360 flu-related deaths this season already. While some people who get vaccinated still get sick, flu vaccination has been shown in several studies to reduce the severity of illness. It is recommended that everyone six months and older get the flu shot with rare exceptions.

The COVID-19 vaccine and boosters are also important tools in our toolboxes to help us stay healthy this season. In fact, the CDC reports that getting the COVID-19 vaccine is a safer, more reliable way to build protection that getting sick with COVID-19. COVID-19 vaccines can offer added protection to people who have had COVID-19, including protection against being hospitalized from a new infection, especially as more variants continue to emerge.

Luckily, getting your flu shot and/or COVID-19 vaccines is fairly easy to come by these days. Many local doctors’ offices, clinics, pharmacies and public health departments offer walk-in or same-day appointments.

Wash your hands and disinfect surfaces

A seemingly trivial piece of advice: washing your hands and disinfecting surfaces regularly are some of the best ways to avoid spreading germs and illness. Viruses can enter your body through the eyes, nose or mouth. If you touch a contaminated surface and then touch your face after, you could potentially infect yourself. According to the CDC, proper handwashing can result in a 16-20 percent decrease in respiratory illnesses such as colds and the flu.

Stay home when you’re sick

Not only does listening to your body when you’re feeling under the weather help you heal, but staying home when you’re sick helps prevents you from spreading your infection to others.  Do yourself and everyone else a favor and stay home when you’re sick.

Fuel your body, stay active and get regular sleep

Fueling your body with the right foods and nutrients helps your immune system fight back against pesky germs determined to make you feel unwell. On a daily basis, we are exposed to potentially harmful germs and our body is constantly protecting itself against them. To help our bodies fight off infections, we need to eat a well-balanced diet filled with nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, nutrients such as probiotics, protein, vitamins A, C, D, E and Zinc can help strengthen your immune system.

It should also come as no surprise that maintaining an active lifestyle helps your body’s immune system stay strong and proactive. Try to get at least 30 minutes of activity each day, even if it’s just a light walk.

Regular sleep of 7-8 hours per night for adults and 9-10 hours per night for teenagers is another way to help our immune systems function at their highest capacity to stave off viral and other infections.

While contracting a virus is an inevitable part of being human, know that we can all take steps to help protect ourselves from illness this winter season. Please talk with your health care provider if you have any questions about how to stay healthy this flu and cold season.

Board Certified in Internal Medicine, Dr. Ashley Coggins serves as a hospitalist at St. Peter's Health Regional Medical Center.