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Don’t let colds, flu dampen pleasures of the season

Holiday stress, coupled with travel demands, can make a person susceptible to colds and flu, but there are ways to reduce your chances of getting sick, a local physician says.

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“Air travel can put you into close confines with other individuals and people with sickness,” said Dr. Stacy Roers Irmen, who practices family medicine with Altru Health System in Grand Forks.

On a plane, “not getting a fresh air source might contribute” to your chances of catching a bug, she said.

“A lot of people load up on vitamin C, supplements and zinc. There’s not a lot of evidence that they keep you from getting sick, but many people still believe in them ... so, if there’s no harm, I’m OK with it,” she said.

Supplements are not harmful if they’re taken according to recommended dosages, she said, and zinc may shorten the duration of symptoms. “The only caution is, if it’s taken in high doses, it can interfere with your sense of smell.”

People can’t overdose on vitamin C, she said, “but whether it helps (prevent sickness) is still unknown.”

If you are sick and have to travel, “it’s OK to use over-the-counter meds to treat symptoms, if there are no reasons not to,” she said, “but not anything that makes you drowsy, especially if you’re driving.”

Protect your health

In preparation for a busy holiday season, Roers Irmen recommends that people “generally take care of themselves by getting plenty of rest and eating healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables, to get the natural sources of vitamins and minerals the body needs to function.”

“Keep taking your (regular) medications, get adequate rest and exercise and stay with a healthy diet. Especially when you’re traveling, you tend to eat fast food and foods that are not as healthy,” she said. “Drink lots of fluids, keeping the body hydrated, in order to function well.”

Fatigue often accompanies holiday travel, she said. “You’re staying up late, visiting with family and friends.”

Sleeping on an uncomfortable hide-a-bed may hinder your ability to get a good night’s rest, she said. “I’ve not felt well-rested after sleeping on one.”

Exercise has a protective effect, she said. “People who exercise regularly are less likely to get common colds and flu.”

Travelers should also make sure they are up-to-date on immunizations, based on age.

She recommends getting an annual flu shot, which takes two weeks before it’s fully effective, she said. “This year’s flu shot has four viral strains — instead of the usual two — so it potentially offers more protection.”

Hand sanitizers

Use hand sanitizers in moderation, she said. “If your hands are visibly dirty, it’s best to clean them the old-fashioned way: scrub with soap and water.”

Be careful about using sanitizers in the presence of children, she said. “They see adults using it, think it’s fun and want to use it.”

Because these products are alcohol-based, they pose a potential danger.

Those that smell good or have an apple or cherry scent “might be appealing to kids,” she said. “They could ingest them and get really sick.”

People “can get carried away” with sanitizers, and there’s no hard evidence that they prevent illness, she said.


Too much stress can cause the body to release stress hormones that can weaken the immune system, said Roers Irmen. This could lead to loss of sleep, which diminishes your sense of well-being.

“Make sure you’re not overextending yourself,” she said. During the holidays “people feel that they need to see every family member. They end up rushing around quite a bit.”

Reduce your commitments and allow plenty of time for travel and sleep.

Being prepared, as much as possible — not waiting until the last minute — will help derail stress, she said. “Christmas shopping (late in the season) can be a stressful time for people.”

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