This Year’s Rundown on Winter, Flu Shots, and Germs
Temperatures have plummeted to the freezing point here in New York. Snow storms are beginning to hit the Midwestern states. Hats, mittens, and scarves are now part of the daily clothing routine for many of us. It’s official: the cold season has begun.
What new discoveries has scientific research made recently in terms of the affects of winter on our health? Really, what’s different this year?
SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER
If you are among the six percent of the population that suffers from
SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), you should know that the disorder
may be linked to a genetic mutation of malanopsin, a photo-pigment gene
in the eye, in which the eye can’t properly regulate light. This month, Ignacio Provencio (a Biology professor at the University of Virginia) and Kathryn Roecklein (an assistant professor of Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh) publish their research on this topic in the Journal of Affective Disorders. This discovery won’t change the fact that light-box therapy is the current
best treatment for SAD, but it does further support evidence that there is a strong connection between genetics and mental health.
For many, getting a flu shot is what kicks off the official winter season. My husband got his last week at a free clinic (a benefit offered to many workers, students and citizens these days), while I opted not to. He gets sick more often than I do, I reasoned; so, I’ll take my chances and see how my immune system does. Aside form couples, these flu shots are a bit controversial in the science community.
Last week, Robert Taylor wrote a piece for NewScientist.com pointing out that statistics on the effects of the flu shot for our elderly population are a bit misleading in that the most fragile seniors are not receiving the shot and/or that their deaths are being recorded as the results of the secondary effects of having the flu, in the form of heart disease, stroke, or pneumonia. Taylor says that "manufacturers should step up efforts to develop vaccines that are more
effective in the elderly, and public health authorities should assess
whether it would be better to protect elderly citizens indirectly by
vaccinating groups such as school children or carriers, to prevent
transmission of the virus."
I never thought of the fact that I could be a flu virus carrier to the elderly — I’m going to get my flu shot this week! I can get one at my doctor’s office, or I could check out one of the several websites devoted to finding a local flu shot, such as FluClinicLocator.org or FindaFluShot.com.
Last summer the Center for Disease Control issued their recommendations for the 2008-2009 flu season to the public, recommending the vaccination for all children ages 5 to 18, and for "healthy" persons up to the age of 59. Another interesting bit of info from the CDC comes in the form of a "Flu Activity Tracker" on their website: you can actually track the flu across the country, like you can track a storm on the Weather Channel. That’s very neat, though perhaps a bit obsessive.
The conflicting studies on the effects of the flu shot for the elderly continue to pour in: the Canadian Medical Association Journal in September asserted that the combo of a flu vaccination and COLD-FX, a unique blend of North American ginseng root that is quite popular in Canada, has cut incidents of the flu and cold by one-third in senior Canadian patients. Since in the United States alone about 36,000 people die from the flu each year, expect to see more scientific studies on this topic in months and years to come.
The COLD HARD FACTS
It turns out that a lot of popular beliefs about staving off colds are pure myth. Case in point: your mom may have been wrong when she told you being outside in the cold would weaken your immune system; in fact, being outdoors and not in crowded interiors could help protect you from airborne viruses. To many it was a shock when last year it was proven that vitamin C does not necessarily protect you against the common cold; though some studies still do claim that the vitamin boosts the immune system. A study released in August asserts that taking zinc within 24 hours of feeling the effects of the common cold could reduce the duration of the symptoms, while other studies show little to no effect in the immune system from taking zinc: so, the jury is still out on that one.
If you think Sudafed and Nyquil are not cutting it in helping you to feel better, you might be happy to hear this: at the end of October, a University of Calgary scientist confirmed that "the immune system response to the virus, and not the virus by itself, results in common cold symptoms." Knowing that the symptoms of a cold are produced by the immune system could dramatically alter scientists’ design of medicines and treatments to be faster and more efficient.
Ever wonder why winter is the cold season? Well, virologists concluded earlier this year that cold viruses are more stable in cold, dry air; and in turn, having cold, dry air in our nasal passages makes it easier for viruses to infiltrate our bodies. Science Daily offers a neat video in which researchers explain this theory.
Scientific theories aside, I’ve been most seriously perusing the Net to remind and re-educate myself how to keep sickness at bay this winter, if not this holiday season. The Oregon Health & Science University has a truly handy-dandy article on the science behind the common cold, and ABC.com has a great photo essay that shows how getting a flu shot is just one of 10 ways to protect
yourself from getting sick.
GRANDMA KNOWS BEST
When I was growing up, my grandmother would tell our family she’d rather not have us visit if any one of us had a cold. We thought it was kind of funny and extreme at the time. But it turns out she was truly on to something there. The most heavily recommended advice by doctors I’ve found in terms of avoiding getting a cold? Wash your hands frequently, definitely don’t touch your eyes, nose or mouth when around people who are coughing, sneezing, and wiping their noses, and just try not to be around people with colds.