Though only nine years old, Kaylyn Heimbach, of Winfield, knows why hand washing is so important.
“To keep germs away,” she said, giving her hands a healthy scrubbing under warm water.
With questions swirling on the impact of COVID-19 this winter and how it will affect the normal cold and flu season, one thing seems certain: the healthier you are going into the winter, the better.
“Now is a great time to schedule an appointment with your personal care provider,” said Matthew Kraynak, D.O., primary care physician at Geisinger Mount Carmel. “A physical exam can make sure you’re on track for any preventive care services and also address any concerns you have.”
It’s also a good time to schedule a physical exam for children, to make sure they’re up-to-date on vaccinations, said Steven Barrows, MD, UPMC Family Medicine at Muncy.
“You can see how the last school year went and discuss any issues that need to be addressed before they become a problem down the line,” Barrows said.
Both physicians emphasized the importance of a flu vaccine.
“We want to make sure everybody gets their flu shot this year. It will keep us healthy and will reduce flu-related hospitalizations,” Kraynack said. “This time, more than ever, it’s important to keep unnecessary hospitalizations down to a minimum during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
People who are vaccinated against the flu help reduce the strain on the system as healthcare workers respond to both the flu and COVID-19. The vaccine is usually available between mid-September and early October, Barrows said. He recommends calling your PCP office to schedule a vaccination. You could also receive it at a pharmacy, “but let your office know so they can update your health maintenance record,” he said.
Kraynak recommends getting the flu shot before the end of October.
“Flu typically peaks in January and February, and the shot takes about two weeks to reach full effect,” he said.
Katherine Kudrick, PA-C, Family Medicine of Evangelical-Lewisburg, recommends the flu shot for anyone over the age of six months as well as a pneumonia vaccine for anyone over age 65—talk to your health care provider with any questions.
“The flu shot not only protects you but also your loved ones and your community,” Kudrick said. “It also helps your hospital save resources.”
As to the idea that the flu shot can give you the flu, that’s simply not true, she said. In fact, it can lower your risk of developing other respiratory illnesses associated with the flu.
Regardless, be considerate of others if you’re coming down with something.
“Try to minimize sharing that illness with other people,” Kudrick said. “Stay home if you’re sick.”
Along with a physical checkup, flu shot and maybe a pneumonia vaccine, now is a good time to strengthen your immunities.
“A healthy immune system is one of the best ways to keep your body from getting sick,” Kraynack said. “The stronger it is, the better able you are to fight off viruses.”
While we can’t avoid touching germ-laden surfaces, we can keep those germs from infecting us by washing our hands just like Kaylyn Heimbach does.
“The first thing is hand hygiene, hand hygiene, hand hygiene,” Dr. Barrows said. “That’s always going to be the most important thing.”
Some patients swear by vitamin supplements, but medical studies have shown mixed results.
“As far as supplements go, there’s not really any single thing that’s been consistently shown to have a significant or meaningful change as far as immune-boosting properties,” Barrows said.
Part of the problem is that studies have had limited funding and support. Plus, quality control on some supplements is questionable. Still, three supplements might offer some immune benefit: vitamin C, vitamin D and zinc.
“It’s not something we can wholeheartedly endorse, as the evidence is still emerging,” Barrows said, “but there is, at least in some smaller studies, some evidence that there may be a role that some of those things could play in helping to decrease the severity of illness.”
Vitamin D may decrease the severity and risk of acquiring an upper respiratory infection. Vitamin C in smaller studies has been shown to decrease the likelihood of contracting certain viruses. And taking zinc lozenges every two to four hours when ill, for a few days in a row, may decrease the severity or duration of illness.
“But zinc is not something people should use on a regular basis because it can lead to copper deficiency if used for a more protracted period of time,” Barrows said.
It’s best to check with your personal care provider before taking any supplements.
Along with Vitamin C, Vitamin D and zinc, Kraynack recommended proteins and probiotics as part of a healthy diet but said it’s better to obtain these nutrients through a balanced diet.
“Natural sources are always better than supplemental sources,” he said.
One trick for ensuring the daily recommended five to seven servings of vegetables and fruits is to fill half your plate with non-starchy vegetables. To keep a strong immune system, Kraynack also recommended getting adequate sleep and finding healthy ways of managing stress.
Kudrick emphasized drinking plenty of water along with maintaining a healthy diet. And as always, talk to your doctor.
“Having an open conversation with your medical provider is also key,” she said. “We’re here to help our patients build a healthy lifestyle.”
For more information, check out these links:
Get a flu shot near you
Helping kids stay safe in school, K - 5th grade
Adjunctive Therapy: supplements and other treatments
Cindy O. Herman lives in Snyder County. Email comments to her at CindyOHerman@gmail.com.