I remember as a kid getting the measles over Christmas – and it was miserable. Measles is pretty rare these days, but there are plenty of other germs you can catch – as a sort of unwelcome holiday “gift”. I’ll give you some general advice on how to stay well over the holidays.
Infections that can ruin your holidays are usually respiratory stuff caused by viruses (colds, bronchitis, sore throats) or stomach upsets caused by bacteria.
It seems everyone has this notion that the way to avoid these infections is to do something to boost your immunity. Take multivitamins, mineral supplements or probiotics for example.
Probiotics have their place if your GI tract is colonized by some nasty invader, but the latest evidence seems to be that most multivitamins and supplements don’t do you much good. And they especially do not have an immediate effect on your immunity.
It's Just Down to Earth Stuff
A varied diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, exercise and enough sleep – all those things your doctor is always carping at you about - will help maintain your health in general. But being aware of where you can pick up these bugs, and avoiding those places, is much more productive than thinking you can boost your immune system to instantly defeat them once they’re on board.
Respiratory infections are spread by coughing and sneezing, as most people know. But quite as much, they are transmitted by touch – so hand washing is an important preventative. The cough/sneeze in your elbow (not on your hand) is a good trick to minimize this.
Hand-sanitizer is a good substitute for hand washing if that’s not available.
Any crowded place at this time of year is a bit of a risk (that includes the doctor’s office – where sick people congregate specifically of course). Flying is also particularly high risk – planes are like incubators as they recirculate the air. If you’re serious about staying well, risk the skeptical looks, and wear a mask.
A flu shot is a good idea – it won’t protect you against colds, but will hopefully stop you from getting the flu, which can really mess up your holidays.
GI infections come from contaminated food. There have been quite a lot of E. coli infections of poultry – some people recommend that you don’t wash your bird, as that may splash contaminated water around. Just cook it thoroughly (and make sure to use a meat thermometer).
Leftovers, especially stuff with dairy/egg products like mayonnaise and sauces, are particularly high risk. On the whole I think people are too paranoid about food going bad if it’s not in the fridge within seconds. But refrigeration is the way to minimize the risk.
There is a wealth of information at the website www.befoodsafe.gov.
Travel and General Advice
For travel by car, make sure it’s roadworthy and not going to break down. You don’t want to die of exposure in some wintery snow scene. So get the car checked and carry waterproof, warm clothes.
Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death in children, so have appropriate seats for them (go to the CDC site for details).
Alcohol is often a big part of the holiday season. It increases the risk of accidents when driving, so stick with a designated driver.
Alcohol can irritate your heart and cause the so called “holiday heart syndrome” - see my post about that. But this can be dangerous, so be aware – not to mention, alcohol increases the risk of all kinds of accidents, and altercations.
Many people get dyspepsia and heartburn from an excess of rich food and alcohol. Having some kind of antacid like Tums, or medicine like ranitidine (Zantac) or omeprazole (Prilosec) can help – but moderation in drinking and eating all that calorie dense, over-rich crap that we tend to celebrate our holidays with, and exercise, is a far more wholesome way to deal with this.
Don't Stress About the Stress
Then there’s the stress. There’s usually a lot written about the stress of the holidays. I personally find the over jolly expectation is hard to live up to – and when you feel guilty for being curmudgeonly and stressed instead of jolly, that in itself makes you depressed.
I also am one of those parents whose been divorced and whose family is divided, so the “who has the children” question is a big issue. A get together, even if it’s not on the right day, is an acceptable alternative I find, that dispels my FOMO (fear of missing out).
Again all that basic stuff like: eat right, exercise, get enough sleep, etc., all helps. Keep it all in proportion – if you didn’t get all your gifts beautifully wrapped, or Aunt Maisy got you a more expensive present than you got for her, probably the world won’t end.
If you’re really losing it, prescription medicines like Xanax, Klonopin or Valium are not unreasonable as a temporary measure – though these benzodiazepine medicines can be habituating.
Hopefully with a little care you can stay well for the holidays and not miss out on the fun like I did when I had the measles that unfortunate Christmas.