Dr Tom York, NHS-registered and private GP for GPDQ, the UK’s first doctor-on-demand app, shares 5 ways to prepare for flu season
With flu season almost upon us once again, it’s time to start thinking about what you can do to prevent yourself and your family from falling ill. Since becoming a father, I have a new set of considerations to take into account this year, so here’s my top five tips for young families to protect themselves from catching the flu.
Here are some ways to boost your immune system, and help protect you from getting ill:
KNOW YOUR VITAMINS
Vitamin C is one of the biggest immune system boosters of all. In fact, a lack of vitamin C can even make you more prone to getting sick. Foods rich in vitamin C include oranges, grapefruits, tangerines, strawberries, bell peppers, spinach, kale and broccoli. Daily intake of vitamin C is essential for good health because your body doesn’t produce or store it. The good news is that vitamin C is in so many foods that most people don’t need to take a vitamin C supplement unless your doctor advises it.
Adequate vitamin D is also essential in maintaining a properly functioning immune system. It is speculated that part of the reason viral illnesses increase in winter months is due to people lacking vitamin D. NHS guidelines suggest breastfed babies, children aged 1-4 years old and pregnant or breastfeeding women should supplement with vitamin D. For everyone else, the advice is to consider supplementation in autumn and winter when sunlight is scarce.
GET BETTER QUALITY SLEEP
The link between sleep deprivation and poor immune function is well established so make sure you’re getting your eight hours a night. It may be difficult to adjust your sleep pattern but the best way to become a creature of habit is by repeating the same bedtime routine every night to help to regulate your inbuilt body clock, (the circadian rhythm) and give your brain the cue it may need to know when it’s time to unwind and go to sleep.
A good way to prepare your body for sleep is to have a warm bath – research has shown that if you take a warm bath one to two hours before bed, the rise in temperature, followed by the drop-in temperature when you then enter a colder room induces sleep. You could also learn some relaxation techniques with gentle exercises like simple yoga stretches, combined with steady breathing which can reduce your blood pressure and heart rate to help you relax.
REVIEW YOUR LIFESTYLE & DIET
Firstly, your diet can impact your immune system. Malnutrition impairs the immune system and can be present in fussy eaters as well those who are underweight. However, no specific food or vitamins will work on their own – a wide variety of natural foods is the key to maintaining a robust immune system, ensuring adequate selenium, zinc, copper, iron and vitamins A, B6, C and E.
Smoking is an unhealthy lifestyle choice and should be avoided. Smoking suppresses the immune system, especially in the respiratory system, making smokers more likely to catch the flu and leading to a more severe illness when they do.
Getting up on your feet will boost your immunity. While the exact threshold for benefit is hard to establish, improving your circulation can give your immune cells a better chance of being where they need to be. A healthy diet and lifestyle including regular light exercise will increase the activity of helpful immune cells.
Whether to have vaccinations or not is a hugely debated topic amongst families. I generally advocate their use but the flu vaccine does come with its own set of issues. The NHS offers the nasal flu vaccines to children aged two to five, the injection to children and adults over the age of five with certain chronic conditions, pregnant women and to adults over the age of 65. However, the injected flu vaccine is available privately to anyone over the age of six months old. The vaccine reduces the incidence of flu infections, the number of hospital admissions and fatalities but the injection, despite not being able to cause the flu, can cause a reaction which has very similar symptoms. Added to this, the effectiveness of the flu vaccine changes from year to year and can only be determined retrospectively. Last year for example, the flu vaccine was 15 percent effective, meaning 85 percent of those who had the vaccine received zero benefit and may well have suffered the flu-like side effects. The nasal vaccine on the other hand, rarely causes side effects other than a slight runny nose, so I will have no hesitation in giving my son this vaccine when he is old enough.
Children under the age of six months cannot receive any form of the flu vaccine. However, one of the many wonderful things about human physiology, is that pregnant mothers share part of their own immune system with their babies via the placenta. This means that taking steps towards boosting your immune system and receiving the flu vaccine in pregnancy can provide your baby with some protection from flu viruses until they’re 6-8 months old, so I’d recommend the flu vaccine for any expectant mothers.
Go via the NHS to get the vaccine for you and/or your child, or to have it done at your own convenience, in the comfort of your own home, go via the UK’s first doctor-on-demand app, GPDQ. The digital service connects its users (patients) directly with a local NHS GP who will visit them within hours at a location of the patient’s choice, be it their home, workplace or a hotel if they are travelling from abroad.
TEACH YOUR CHILDREN GOOD HYGIENE
Another slightly contentious topic is how clean to keep your family’s environment. Advances in hygiene since the mid 19th century have saved countless human lives, but the quest to create an ever more sterile environment may well have led to the rise in various other conditions such as asthma, hay fever, autoimmune diseases and some cancers.
Flu is very contagious, so it’s advisable to take extra precautions especially if you have young, unvaccinated children. Flu can be caught from inhaling the virus when someone who is infected coughs or sneezes. Avoid cramped public spaces like buses and trains if at all possible and avoid visiting someone you know has the flu. The flu virus can also remain on surfaces for up to 24 hours so hand washing, especially before mealtimes is a good idea. With the best will in the world, it’s impossible to eliminate the risk of catching the flu. Therefore, I generally think it makes sense to try and develop a robust immune system in yourself and your family by relaxing hygiene standards a little when the risk of contracting illnesses is low.