Winter wellness 101

Tips for staying healthy.
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Stock your medicine cabinet with the tools to help you feel better this winter. Photo by iStock
Dr. Elizabeth Albright Courtesy Metro Health

Winter is typically cold and flu season, but this year, diagnoses could get a bit trickier with COVID-19 lurking around every corner. The virus shares several symptoms with cold and flu viruses. Grand Rapids Magazine reached out to Dr. Elizabeth Albright, a primary care physician at Metro Health, to find out more about distinguishing between the different viruses and general tips for staying healthy and battling the common cold and flu.

Grand Rapids Magazine: What are some things people should understand about viruses and treatments of different illnesses like the common cold, flus, sinus infections, etc.?

Elizabeth Albright: The one thing the common cold, influenza and COVID-19 have in common is they are all viruses. This means they are usually self-limited diseases that will resolve on their own given enough time and supportive treatment so that the body can fight off the illness. Even sinus infections usually start as a virus.

This also means that none of these infections respond to antibiotics. There was a lot of misinformation at the beginning of the pandemic regarding the use of certain antibiotics for COVID. As more research has been done, these antibiotics have not been found effective and are not recommended for treating COVID. There is anti-viral treatment for influenza that can be used in certain situations. The best thing you can do if you develop any of these viral illnesses is support your symptoms. Hydration is key and so is sleep. These two things alone allow the body the most support to fight.

Five tips for better health

Dr. Elizabeth Albright shares her best practices.

1. Wash your hands
I repeat: Wash your hands. Frequently and thoroughly.

2. Get enough sleep
A well-rested body is better able to fight and to have an optimally working and efficient immune system.

3. Hydrate
The average adult needs a minimum of 2-3 liters (65-100 ounces) of water daily. If it has caffeine or alcohol in it, it doesn’t count.

4. Exercise
Think of it as a preventive strategy. Regular physical activity can boost white blood cells (the infection-fighting cells) and antibody circulation and efficiency. It also decreases the release of stress hormones, thus improving immune function. If you are not feeling well, it’s okay to take a few days off.

5. Avoid crowds
If you are able, try to avoid being in enclosed spaces with a significant number of other people. When you have to, make sure you wear your mask and limit your time as much as possible.

GRM: COVID-19 is likely going to present some unique challenges this winter. If someone comes down with symptoms that could be COVID-19 but could also be a flu or cold, what should they do?

EA: As with any illness, keep stock of your symptoms. If you have a fever (defined as temp greater than 100.4 degrees), cough or other symptoms, you should isolate yourself as much as possible. Some of the symptoms that COVID presents with, like change in smell or change in taste, are unique to COVID but are not that common. So, just because you do not have these symptoms does NOT mean you do not have COVID. It is always better to err on the side of caution, especially if you work with a lot of other people.

GRM: What should be included in someone’s winter wellness arsenal?

EA: My medicine cabinet is stocked with both Tylenol and ibuprofen, cough drops, Chloraseptic throat spray, an antihistamine, a decongestant, a cough suppressant, and an extra box of Kleenex. I make sure to keep my kitchen stocked with herbal tea, local honey and soups.

If you have small children, children’s dose medications and Pedialyte are good to have on hand. You can use honey for a cough in anyone over the age of 1 year old. It is actually more effective than many of the leading cough medicines.

GRM: Is there any other information you’d like to share on staying healthy this winter?

EA: One of the single most important things that you can do to help stay healthy this winter is get your flu shot.

Editor’s Note: This Q&A was edited for length and clarity.

Do these products work?

There are many products that purport to help people stay healthy or alleviate symptoms, but which items are really worth spending your hard-earned cash on? Dr. Elizabeth Albright weighs in on some of the trendiest products. She also said, “Anything that’s affordable and makes it easier to sleep, hydrate, exercise or wash your hands — think water bottle, sleeping mask, running shoes, etc.” is worth the investment as these items are key to improving your chances of staying healthy.

Weighted blankets

There is a lot of anecdotal evidence about weighted blankets for the treatment of several mental health disorders, specifically anxiety, insomnia, autism and night terrors. While there is not a lot of reproducible evidence regarding their use, a weighted blanket is unlikely to cause harm so it is often worth a try but shouldn’t be used on young children.

Vitamin supplements

Photo by iStock

There is some limited evidence that taking a Vitamin C supplement can help to boost the immune system and decrease duration of illness if taken before the start of a cold. There is also evidence that use of zinc supplements at the onset of symptoms can help shorten the duration of symptoms by up to 24 hours.

SAD lights

Seasonal Affective Disorder lights (Vitamin D lights) are used to mimic natural outdoor light, which (in Michigan) can be difficult to come by in the winter months. Initially developed to help treat seasonal depression, light therapy also is used for major depression, sleep disorders, dementia and a host of other conditions.
If you invest in a light therapy box, you should make sure to get one that filters out UV light so that you don’t inadvertently increase your risk of skin cancers. … It is unlikely to cure your SAD, but it may certainly make you feel better.

Neti Pots

Photo by iStock

Neti Pots are a love it or leave it item. I rarely meet a patient who feels indifferent about a Neti Pot or sinus rinse product. These products are used to flush the sinuses and nasal passages. …It is important to use distilled water, sterile water or tap water that you have brought to a full boil and then let cool to room temperature. With regular tap water (not boiled), there is a risk of introducing an atypical infection into the sinuses. I am a fan of this one and, if you are able to tolerate it, I have found that patients can get significant relief from congestion with use.

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