As a nurse, your risk of catching a viral illness from an infected patient during cold and flu season is high. Additionally, your line of work requires that you be out in the community where you could possibly be exposed to COVID-19 (which shares many similar symptoms with the cold and flu viruses). Thankfully, there are several simple lifestyle changes that you can implement to enhance your immune system’s response. Keep reading to find out how you can protect and improve your health this cold and flu season.
10 Ways Nurses Can Stay Healthy During Cold and Flu Season
Eat a Balanced Diet
Did you know that nearly 70% of your body’s immune system resides in your gastrointestinal system? This means your gut plays a critical role in keeping you healthy during cold and flu season. You can improve your gastrointestinal system’s overall health by consuming a balanced diet, one that is low in fat and sugar and high in protein and fiber. Furthermore, there are several foods that you can eat to give your immune system an added boost. Red peppers, for instance, contain three times as much vitamin C as a Florida orange and shellfish (i.e. oysters, crabs, lobsters and mussels) are packed with zinc.
When your body is under stress, your adrenal glands produce and release cortisol into your bloodstream. While cortisol plays an important role in activating your body’s fight or flight response (critical for high stress situations), it also suppresses the effectiveness of B-cells and T-cells (critical for destroying viruses and pathogens). Furthermore, high levels of stress can wreak havoc on your digestive system, causing ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome and other unwanted changes. That is why it is extremely important that you find ways to lower your stress levels during cold and flu season. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach for stress reduction, breathing exercises, practicing mindfulness and positive self-talk are all great ways to help reduce tension in the moment.
In addition to lowering your stress levels, regular acute exercise (exercise that is moderate to vigorous and lasts less than an hour) has been proven to improve your immune system’s response. Typically, your body’s immune cells collect in the organs that are responsible for killing viruses and pathogens (i.e. your lymphatic system). However, when you exercise, your blood and lymph flow is increased, resulting in a higher number of immune cells circulating in your body at a higher rate. The best part is that you will not need an expensive gym membership or fancy exercise equipment to achieve this immune boosting benefit. Walking, running and cycling are all types of acute exercise that will produce the desired result.
Get Enough Sleep
When you’re working 12-hour shifts and attending to the needs of your family and home, it can be difficult to pencil in an eight-hour appointment with the Sandman. While getting an adequate amount of rest is important all year long, it is especially important during cold and flu season. When you’re sleeping, your body releases cytokines that stimulate the immune system to fight foreign pathogens. Production of these protective cytokines is decreased when you cut your sleep short. Additionally, restful sleep bolsters the production of T-cells, responsible for destroying cells infected by viruses and pathogens. Help your body help you. Go to sleep.
Take Your Vitamins
While we generally think of vitamin C as the “go-to vitamin” of cold and flu season, there are several other vitamins that, when taken properly, improve your body’s immune function. For instance, vitamin D does so much more than support bone health. It has also been shown to enhance the function of immune cells, such as T-cells and macrophages. Additionally, vitamin B6 is responsible for producing white blood cells and T-cells and supporting the immune system’s biochemical reactions. And vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that helps the body fight off infection. These three vitamins are just the tip of the iceberg.
Before taking any vitamin supplements, we recommend consulting with your doctor on the appropriate dosages and frequency.
As the weather grows cooler, people tend to congregate indoors where it is nice and warm. However, staying out of the elements can be detrimental to your health during cold and flu season for two reasons. First, as people spend more of their time inside, the likelihood of getting a virus from someone else is increased, especially in buildings with poor ventilation systems. Second, scientists believe that when we are outside, we breath in phytoncides (airborne chemicals produced by plants) that increase our white blood cell count. Therefore, spending time in the great outdoors prevents possible exposures and improves our immune health. Also, it’s much easier to exercise outside and our bodies naturally produce vitamin D when exposed to sunlight.
Wash Your Hands
No article on staying healthy during cold and flu season would be complete without a reminder to wash your hands. While hand washing is a best practice that many nurses readily follow, simply lathering up with soap and water is not enough. Outlined below is the proper handwashing technique for healthcare professionals:
• Use lukewarm running water to wet your hands.
• Apply soap and rub your hands together to work up a lather.
• In addition to rubbing your palms together, be sure to wash the back of your hands, your wrists, between your fingers and under your nails.
• Proper handwashing should take no less than 20 seconds (or the amount of time it takes to sing the ABC’s or Happy Birthday twice).
• Rinse your hands starting at your wrist. Let the water run off your fingertips. Be sure to rinse away all the lather.
• Dry your hands well with a clean paper towel. Use the paper towel to turn off the faucet and open the door.
Wash Your Scrubs
Throughout your day as a nurse, you encounter a variety of patients that are managing a variety of health conditions. While you undoubtedly understand and embrace the importance of good hand hygiene as part of these interactions, have you ever considered the importance of good scrub hygiene? Common bacterium and viruses can live on surfaces for hours, days, weeks or even months. That is why it is important to properly disinfect your scrubs during cold and flu season.
To properly disinfect your scrubs, first wash them inside out with cold water and detergent on a normal setting. Once you are sure that your scrubs are free from any stains, they need to be washed again with hot water and a color safe bleach. After they have been washed, scrubs should be put in the dryer on the highest heat setting for 30 minutes to ensure that any remaining contaminants are killed.
Get a Flu Vaccine
The flu shot is your first line of defense when it comes to warding off the constantly evolving flu virus. While not an absolute guarantee that you will not contract a strain of the flu, individuals that are vaccinated experience significantly shorter periods of illness when compared with those who do not receive the vaccine. After the vaccine has been administered, it can take up to two weeks for your body to build immunity. Most health experts recommend getting the flu shot by the last week of October to ensure that your body has acquired immunity before the peak of flu season (typically December through February).
If you find yourself sick this cold and flu season, staying home is your best option for regaining optimal health quickly. While you are home convalescing, make sure that you are getting plenty of rest and drinking lots of fluids. While making the decision to stay home is never an easy one, it is important to remember that you will do more harm than good by going into work sick. Additionally, you’ll be able to return to work more quickly and you’ll be more productive at work if you take the time to heal first.
The content of this blog post is intended as general information only. For more detailed personal advice, contact a qualified medical practitioner that is familiar with your medical history.