Winter wellbeing: prevention
Monday 1st December
According to old wives' tales and popularly-held beliefs, anything from a daily apple to popping vitamin C should help ward off those winter health woes. Here we attempt to separate fact from fiction.
Taking vitamin C has been popular since the 1970s, when Nobel laureate Linus Pauling used placebo-controlled trials to demonstrate that it could prevent and alleviate the common cold. There have been numerous trials since then, and a review published in January 2013 compared the evidence from these studies in search of a definitive answer. The review concluded that vitamin C “supplementation [failed] to reduce the incidence of colds in the general population”, which “indicates that routine vitamin C supplementation is not justified”.
Similarly, current advice from the Department of Health (DoH) advises that we should be able to get all the vitamin C we need from a varied and balanced diet. For those still keen to take a supplement, the advice is not to take too much as it could be harmful. The DoH maintains that taking less than 1,000mg of vitamin C is unlikely to cause any harm. For the record, the average eating apple (112 grams) provides a quarter of an adult's recommended daily intake of vitamin C.
If you prefer the more tried-and-tested approach, then the seasonal flu jab is available at GP surgeries and high street pharmacies, and is offered free on the NHS to:
- the over-65s
- pregnant women
- children and adults with an underlying health condition (particularly long-term heart or respiratory disease)
- children and adults with weakened immune systems
The children's flu vaccine is nowadays delivered as a nasal spray and is routinely offered to two, three and four-year-olds.
The scientific evidence behind the flu jab is much more robust. Each year, the World Health Organization (WHO) identifies which viruses are most likely to cause flu and recommends which strains should be included in the annual jab. The 2014/15 vaccine is designed to protect against three types of virus:
- H1N1 – the strain of flu that caused the swine flu pandemic in 2009
- H3N2 – a strain of flu that can infect birds and mammals and was active in 2011
- B/Massachusetts/2 – a strain of flu that was active in 2012
A new survey commissioned by Lloyds Pharmacy has revealed, meanwhile, that many people don't realise how easy flu is to spread. More than half of respondents (52%) guessed they would only be contagious for up to 24 hours before starting to show symptoms, whereas the real figure is around 40 hours. Commenting on these findings, leading virologist Professor Andrew Easton, at the University of Warwick, said: "There needs to be far more understanding about the flu vaccine and its benefits. For example, it’s important to get the vaccine annually as flu mutates so each year’s vaccine is different. If you get vaccinated you’re not only protecting yourself but those around you - helping to increase immunity in society as a whole.”
Helping yourself stay healthy
It may sound obvious, but practising good hygiene can make a tangible difference in preventing the spread of germs and thereby slowing the spread of flu. Follow these easy steps when seasonal bugs are doing the rounds:
- wash your hands regularly with soap and water
- keep surfaces such as your keyboard, telephone and door handles clean and germ-free
- use tissues to cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze
- dispose of used tissues as soon as you can
In practising good hand hygiene, you may want to consider using a hand sanitiser such as EcoHydra, which is alcohol-free and is approved by the NHS. It kills 99.9999% of germs, including norovirus, MRSA and bird flu.
NHS Choices has further practical tips for preventing the spread of germs in the home, with specific advice that covers bathrooms and kitchens, too. This information is also useful for anyone concerned about the highly contagious norovirus, known as the winter vomiting bug.
Don't forget that members of benenden health have access to the 24-hour GP advice line.
For more about keeping colds and flu at bay, visit “a healthier you” on the benenden website.