There isn’t anyone who hasn’t come down with a nasty cold or virus just days before an big event. For some among us, it seems that being sick is just a way of life and days feeling well are few and far between. To be free of sniffles, sneezing, and headaches would be a dream come true. It is possible, but first you have to figure out what’s making you sick and what you can do to end it.
You Are What You Eat
“An apple a day keeps the doctor away” is an adage that speaks the truth. If you do not eat a well-rounded, balanced diet, your body may be unable to operate at peak performance. A poor diet may make you more susceptible to illness too.
In general, the better you eat, the healthier you are. Good nutrition is about getting all the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals your body needs to work at its best. Different age groups have different nutritional needs and requirements, but the same general rules apply to people of all ages:
- eat a variety of fruits and vegetables daily
- choose lean proteins over fatty ones
- limit your daily intake of fats, sodium, and sugars
- eat whole grains whenever possible
Every system within the body depends on water. It helps carry nutrients and minerals to cells, and can keep your mouth, nose, throat moist—all vital processes for avoiding illness. Even though the body is made up of 60 percent water, you lose fluids through urination, bowel movements, sweating, and even breathing. Dehydration occurs when you don’t replace the fluids you lose.
Mild to moderate dehydration is sometimes difficult to identify, but it can contribute to feelings of being ill. That’s because symptoms of mild to moderate dehydration can be mistaken for a general aches and pains: fatigue, headache, and constipation. Chronic dehydration is severe and dangerous. Symptoms include:
- extreme thirst
- sunken eyes
- low blood pressure
- rapid heartbeat
The treatment is simple: sip water all day long, especially in hot or humid conditions. Eating foods that have high water content, such as fruits and vegetables, can also help keep you hydrated throughout the day. As long as you urinate often and don’t feel thirsty, you’re likely drinking enough to stay thoroughly hydrated.
People who don’t get quality sleep or sleep too few hours each night are more likely to get sick.
While you sleep, your immune system releases cytokines, proteins that fight inflammation and disease. Your body needs more of these proteins when you’re sick or stressed. If you’re sleep deprived, your body can’t produce enough of the protective proteins. This lowers your body’s natural ability to fight infections and viruses.
Long-term sleep deprivation also increases your risk of:
- heart disease
- cardiovascular problems
For adults, between six and eight hours of sleep is ideal for helping your body stay well. Teenagers and children need as much as 10 hours of sleep each day.
Your hands are exposed to countless germs throughout the day. When you don’t wash your hands regularly and touch your face, lips, and food, you can spread illnesses. You can even reinfect yourself.
Simply washing your hands with running water and antibacterial soap for 20 seconds (hum the “Happy Birthday” song twice) can help you stay healthy and ward off illness-inducing bacteria. When clean water and soap isn’t available, use alcohol-based hand sanitizers that contain at least 60 percent alcohol.
Disinfect countertops, door handles, and electronics (such as your phone, tablet, and computer) with wipes when you’re sick. To prevent the spread of illness, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends washing your hands:
- before and after food preparation
- before eating
- before and after caring for a person who is sick
- before and after treating a wound
- after using the bathroom
- after changing diapers or assisting a child with potty training
- after coughing, sneezing, or blowing your nose
- after touching pets or handling pet waste or food
- after handling garbage (CDC, 2012)
Bad Oral Health
Your teeth are a window into your health, and your mouth is a safe haven for both good and bad bacteria. When you are well, your body’s natural defenses maintain optimum oral health, and daily brushing and flossing can keep dangerous bacteria in check. However, when harmful bacteria are allowed to grow out of control, it can make you sick and cause inflammation and problems elsewhere in your body.
Long-term, chronic oral health problems can have bigger consequences. Poor oral health has been linked to heart disease, stroke, premature birth, low birth weight, and endocarditis, an infection in the inner lining of the heart. To promote healthy teeth and gums, brush and floss your teeth at least twice a day (especially after meals), and schedule regular checkups with your dentist so he or she can monitor you for potential problems.
Immune System Disorders
Immune system disorders occur when a person’s immune system does not fight antigens. Antigens are harmful substances like bacteria, toxins, cancer cells, viruses, and foreign blood, or tissues. In a healthy body, an invading antigen is met by antibodies. Antibodies are proteins that are meant to destroy harmful substances. However, some people have immune systems that do not work as well as they should or can’t produce effective antibodies to ward of illness.
Immune system disorders can be inherited, or they can be the result of malnutrition (not getting adequate vitamins and nutrients). Your immune system also may grow less effective as you get older.
Talk with your doctor if you suspect you or a family member has an immune system disorder.
The Nonallergic Nose
It’s possible to experience symptoms of seasonal allergies such as itchy eyes, watery nose, and stuffy head without actually having allergies. This condition is called nonallergic rhinitis. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), this condition affects 20 million Americans (AAFA, 2004).
The symptoms of nonallergic rhinitis are very similar to that of an allergic reaction, but instead of being caused by ragweed, grass, tree pollen, or another typical allergen, it’s caused by strong odors, certain foods, stress, changes in the weather, or even dry air.
Nonallergic rhinitis occurs when the lining of the nasal passages are irritated. The blood vessels in your nose expand, rushing blood into the nasal lining. This causes abnormal expansion and inflammation in your nose, which triggers the telltale allergy symptoms. Most people are diagnosed with nonallergic rhinitis after they have undergone allergy testing.
Treatment for the condition depends on:
- how much it bothers you
- what your triggers are
- if you have any other conditions that may complicate treatment
Most people can use a nasal spray to flush the nose of irritants and help reduce inflammation. Over-the-counter and prescription decongestants may also be used, but side effects of long-term use include high blood pressure, loss of appetite, and anxiety.
Too Much Stress
Stress is a normal part of life, and in small doses, it can even be healthy. However, chronic stress can take a toll on your body and make you sick. Research shows chronic stress can actually suppress your body’s natural immune response, which can prolong healing, increase the frequency and severity of infections, and aggravate existing health problems.
Practice stress reduction techniques, such as taking a break from your computer, avoiding your cell phone for several hours after you get home, or listening to soothing music after a stressful work meeting. Exercise can help reduce stress and improve your mood. You may find relaxation through music, art, or meditation. Whatever it is, find something that helps you reduce your stress and relax. Seek professional help if you’re unable to control stress on your own.
Kids Are Germ Central
Kids play on dirty playground equipment, aren’t the best at washing their hands after using the restroom, and don’t mind picking up strange things from the ground. Their hands carry plenty of germs on a daily basis. They pass those germs on to one another, their teachers, and their parents. If your child has been sick or if you work with sick children, odds are you’ll end up sick too.
Help teach your child good hygiene habits, like frequent hand washing, and bathe him or her every day. This will help stop the spread of viruses and germs around your household. Wash your own hands frequently, wipe down common surfaces when someone gets sick, and keep your child home until he or she is well.