July 21st, 2024

Common Sense Health: Missing messages in infection prevention

By Dr. Gifford-Jones and Diana Gifford-Jones on October 20, 2023.

Influenza, or the flu, is on the rise this time of year. That’s because the virus spreads easily when people are indoors in close contact and when the air is less humid and colder. So, it makes sense that International Infection Prevention Week takes place in October. But what doesn’t make sense is the absence of an important message.

Public health officials offer a standard list of best practices to reduce the risk of infections. Hand hygiene is top of the list. It’s a fact that many people don’t wash their hands after using the toilet. But they will clutch their mobile phones, which never get washed, before during and after trips to the toilet. Hands and phones are both common vehicles for the transmission of microorganisms from one person to another.

Use of cleaners and disinfectants is another recommendation. It’s been said that “cleanliness is next to godliness,” and that’s true to a point. But don’t forget that valuable life lessons come from embracing the messiness and imperfections of our human experience.

What about vaccinations? It’s on the list as it should be. From measles, mumps, and rubella to typhoid and polio, vaccinations have saved millions of lives. If you have doubts, don’t rely on one expert’s opinion. Do your research. Read widely. Vaccines are a vital part of our toolkit for fighting infections.

COVID migrated personal protective equipment from the surgical theatre into public settings and PPE is now a familiar acronym. We’ve learned new respiratory etiquette, too. Get that elbow in place for a sneeze, then bring out the hand sanitize in a show of extra effort!

Infections can be transmitted in hospitals, assisted living residences, and in kitchens everywhere – on medical instruments, in food, and in the air. Following safety instructions is crucial to minimize risk, especially for vulnerable people.

But what’s the missing message?

Never neglect the importance of building and maintaining a robust immune system. Why is the message to strengthen natural defences so frequently overshadowed?

There is nothing in comparison to the sophistication with which the body naturally sorts bacterial and viral friend from foe. A strong, natural immune response is an excellent defence against the flu and other common infections. Evolved over millennia to keep us safe, the immune system is a remarkable network of cells, tissues, and organs working together to protect the body from harmful invaders.

Building a strong immune system isn’t rocket science. You need a well-balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains that provide the essential nutrients for immune function. Vitamin C, vitamin D, magnesium, and zinc are known to bolster immunity. But you need high doses of C, to keep cells primed for a fight, on the order of 1,000 mg a couple of times a day. Higher doses are needed in the moment of crisis when the fight is on against powerful combatants.

There are other important steps. Exercise promotes circulation of immune cells, enhancing the body’s defence mechanisms. Staying hydrated is crucial. Quality sleep is essential for immune system restoration and function. Research suggests that emotional well-being has a beneficial impact on immune function too.

By contrast, chronic stress suppresses the immune system. If you feel under pressure, get into meditation, yoga, and deep breathing. If you gut is out of whack, your immune system probably is too. Consume probiotic-rich foods or take supplements. It goes without saying that smokers must quit, and alcohol use should be moderate or not at all.

It’s ironic that health authorities don’t share this message. We’d have better infection prevention if they did.

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