“While crowded shopping malls and holiday parties certainly increase our risk of getting sick this time of year, there are many precautions you can take to stay healthy,” said Gillian Stephens, M.D., assistant professor of family and community medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine.
According to Stephens, here are the top 10 strategies for protecting yourself and your family during the holidays:
At the Party
1. Keep your distance. For many, the holidays are about being close to family and friends, but Stephens recommends not getting too close. Cold and flu germs are spread through water droplets from your mouth and nose. By staying 3 to 6 feet away from other guests – especially those who appear to be sick – you can decrease your risk of getting sick. Before giving grandma a hug, turn your face to avoid close face-to-face contact. Flu germs also can live on many surfaces for up to 48 hours, so beware of common shared items such as the telephone, remote control, door handles and utensils.
2. Wash your hands frequently. To avoid getting sick, frequently wash your hands with warm water and soap or hand sanitizer, especially before eating or touching your eyes and nose. Stephens recommends carrying a small bottle of hand sanitizer in your pocket for convenience. Hand sanitizing especially is important for small children who tend to put things in their mouths and touch each other.
3. Beware of the buffet table. Calories are not the only things lurking at the buffet table – germs are, too. As the host, you can cut down on sharing germ by serving food in single portions or with utensils. As a party guest, don’t double dip or snack directly from the buffet.
4. Don’t drink in excess. Alcohol often flows more freely around the holidays, but Stephens said it’s important not to drink more than one or two alcoholic beverages per day. Excessive drinking is dangerous for many reasons. People lose their inhibitions when drinking, which can lead to unhealthy and dangerous decisions such as driving while intoxicated. Alcohol also has a lot of calories and can bust your diet.
5. Stay home if you’re sick. No one wants to miss the party, but do yourself and your loved ones a favor and stay home when you’re not feeling well. While it’s probably safe to attend the party with a slight cold, stay home if you have symptoms such as a sore throat, runny nose or a cough, or if you have a fever or body aches. If you are staying with relatives and become ill, ask for a private room if possible.
All Season Long
Of course, staying healthy during the holidays is not limited to what you do at parties or in other crowded spaces. Stephens offers these five tips for maintaining a healthy lifestyle throughout the holidays:
1. Sleep. Avoid the temptation to cut back on sleep in order to squeeze more into your already busy days. Even missing an hour or two of sleep per night can wear down your immune system and increase your stress levels, making you more susceptible to germs. Maintaining a regular routine and sleep schedule also is very important for children. Skipping a nap or staying at the parties too late can make for irritable children.
2. Maintain a healthy diet. We all splurge on Thanksgiving and that is OK. If you splurge every day for the next 6 weeks, though, you can easily gain 5 to 10 pounds. Before a party, eat a large apple or half a peanut butter sandwich and drink a large glass of water. At the party, survey the buffet table. Take very small servings of high calorie dishes and fill up on vegetables. Save your calories for your favorites.
3. Keep hydrated. Cold, dry air will dry out your mucus membranes, breaking down your natural barrier to infection. To avoid getting sick, make sure the drink plenty of water, especially when traveling. Stephens recommends taking an empty water bottle with you to the airport and filling up after you pass security.
4. Exercise. Despite your growing to-do list, now is not the time to take a break from your exercise routine. Regular exercise will help you keep off the holiday weight and provide a great stress relief. Make exercise a family event by taking a group walk or playing a game of basketball.
5. Don’t forget about your mental health. Stress affects your immune system and makes for a crabby Santa. From selecting that perfect gift to decorating the house and baking an elaborate assortment of cookies, many people put too much pressure on themselves to create the perfect Christmas celebrations for their family. Stephens also recommends setting aside some time, even if it’s just 15 minutes per day, for yourself.
The holidays are not about being perfect, but about enjoying time with your family and friends, Stephens explained. Decide what’s most important to you and let the rest slide.