If there's one drawback to the holiday season, it's that cold and flu season isn't far behind. So Blueprint asked internist Amy Bleyer, M.D., to make a house call. As a doctor, mother, and subway rider, she's exposed daily to everything from strep throat to the common cold -- yet, remarkably, she's been sick only once in the past eight years. So what is her superhuman secret? "Prevention is really the best strategy," she says. "Learning how to wipe out any infection fast is the other." Bleyer's two-pronged approach to health will reduce sniffles, sneezes, aches, and pains -- and keep you in high spirits.
Dr. Bleyer's Prevention Plan
Why do some people get sick (and seem to remain sick) while others stay well? "A lot of it is genes," Bleyer says, "Immune systems vary." But there are ways to boost your body's defenses. For starters, get eight hours of sleep each night, fit in regular workouts, and manage stress, which affects your ability to fight infection.
Keep it Clean
Most germs are passed through contact, not by airborne transmission, explains Bleyer. So washing your hands is the most important thing you can do to prevent illness. The key: Soap up often and for at least 15 seconds (research shows this is enough time to kill germs). And your soap needn't have the stripping powers of rubbing alcohol. According to a recent study in the "Harvard Health Letter", regular soap reduces bacteria counts by 90 percent, comparable to those skin-parching antibacterial solutions. At every sink in Bleyer's home she keeps Method Hand Wash (above), a gentle cleanser with aloe and vitamin E. She also carries Kirkland Signature Premium Baby Wipes in her purse ($18, Costco). "They're great for wiping up hands after being on the subway or a playground," she says. On the flip side, always use a tissue to cover your nose and mouth when sneezing or coughing to help prevent germs from spreading. Although that's hard to do with little kids, Bleyer admits. I have a 2-year-old who sometimes asks for a tissue. But other times, when I look down, I see he's used his shirt instead."
Bleyer starts her morning with a large cup of Tetley tea (above) with honey and lemon. Many studies show that black tea, which contains more detoxifying antioxidants and less caffeine than coffee, helps neutralize germs and prevent the clogging of arteries that can lead to a heart attack. Bleyer aims to drink at least 64 ounces of fluid a day. "Water keeps your cells healthy so that your immune system functions optimally, she says. "Just remember that anything caffeinated actually dehydrates you, so it not only doesn't count toward your daily intake, it takes away from it. You need to counter every caffeinated drink with another glass of water. Mid-morning, Bleyer switches from tea to water, and sips on several glasses during the day. To help meet both her fluid and calcium requirements (1,000 mg), she often drinks a glass of calcium-fortified orange juice (350 mg), too.
Nourish Your Body
"Most of my nutrients come from my diet, which is ideal, Bleyer says. She eats a variety of immunity-boosting fruits and vegetables, and has fish, like salmon, twice a week to get its heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Because balanced meals aren't always an option, she takes a multivitamin every night. She likes One-A-Day for Women (above) because the tablets contain 45 percent (450 mg) of the daily calcium requirement for women of childbearing age. "They're also inexpensive and easy to find," she adds. For pregnant women -- or those trying to be -- Bleyer prefers Twinlab Pre-Natal Care capsules ($26, drugstore.com), which she took while pregnant and nursing. They're easy to swallow and never upset my stomach, she says. Hormonal fluctuations can account for many physical changes during pregnancy, but my hair never looked healthier or my skin clearer."
Get a Flu Shot
"I get a flu vaccine [above] every year and encourage my patients to do the same," she says. The vaccine is available from September to February and is effective for about a year. It's best to get a shot in October or November, as the flu usually strikes between December and March. The vaccine exposes you to three strains of influenza (the strains vary each year) so that your body can make protective antibodies to fight them. While the shot is no guarantee you won't catch the flu -- you could get it in the two weeks before the vaccine starts working or be exposed to a strain you haven't been inoculated against -- Bleyer still believes it's a worthy preventive measure.
Moisturize Your Skin
Strange but true: Hydrated skin actually helps block bugs. "When your skin is dry and cracked, it allows germs to enter," Bleyer says. Her hands get very dry, thanks to multiple washings with harsh medical antimicrobial soaps at work. So I have bottles of Neutrogena Norwegian Formula Hand Cream [above] everywhere, she says. She also prefers Lubriderm Daily Moisture Lotion ($4, drugstores) for her body, and her favorite lip balm is L'Occitane Mini Pure Shea Butter ($8, loccitane.com).
Her Rx for Everything (Well, Almost Everything)
If you're coming down with something, don't try to be a hero by hauling yourself into the office. The sniffles are one thing (it could just be allergies), but if you have a high fever, killer sore throat, or the chills, you shouldn't inflict your germs on your coworkers. Below are Dr. Bleyer's treatments for the most common symptoms under the winter sun.
As soon as you feel that funny tickle or the slightest itch, increase your fluid intake, Bleyer says. She suggests warm liquids, like tea or hot water with honey and lemon, because they're soothing. Or try drinks with body-replenishing electrolytes, such as Vitaminwater Power-C (above) or Gatorade, to stay hydrated. Gargling with salt water can also help. If your throat really hurts, she recommends crushing 200 mg of generic ibuprofen (above) in six to eight ounces of warm water, and gargling with it. It acts like a local anesthetic, alleviating the pain and inflammation, she says. Most scratchy throats will go away on their own in a few days, but if you have a fever above 101 degrees, notice white patches on your tonsils or redness in your throat, or if it's incredibly painful to swallow, see a doctor.
If you have a runny nose and feel tired and achy, you'll need to rest right away in order to recover fast. In the morning, Bleyer recommends one or two Advil Cold & Sinus Non-Drowsy formula caplets (above), which contain a pain reliever, fever reducer, and decongestant. At night, clean your sinuses with a neti pot (available at health-food stores), which resembles a Lilliputian watering can. It's a very old practice that involves pouring warm salt water into your nasal cavity and then blowing your nose, she explains. It's not exactly something you want to do in front of loved ones, but "it really improves sinus drainage. Bleyer also suggests sleeping with a humidifier on to keep nasal passages clear and moisturized. A cold can last five to 10 days, but if you're going deep into your second week, have a temperature above 101 degrees, or are experiencing symptoms like nausea, vomiting, or severe chills, it's time to head to the doctor. You may have the flu, pneumonia, or a sinus infection.
Got a runny nose and congestion, coupled with coughing? Take one or two Mucinex tablets (above) every 12 hours. Mucinex contains guaifenesin, an expectorant that helps you cough up more, uh, mucus. As much as you want to stop coughing, its best not to suppress it: Coughing really helps clear out your lungs. So the more productive your cough is, the better," Bleyer says. "I prefer this particular formula because it doesn't contain a suppressant." If you're wondering whether you should see a doctor, use the phlegm test (kind of gross, yes) as your indicator: If yours is greenish or brown, it may be a sign that you need an antibiotic.
For the occasional headache, take 400 mg of ibuprofen (above) or 220 mg of naproxen (found in Aleve), and follow up with the same dose as directed if the pain doesn't subside. Be sure to take ibuprofen with food, as it can irritate your stomach lining over time, Bleyer says. If you get chronic headaches, start keeping a journal to log patterns. Write down what you ate that day, if you have your period, and where your head aches specifically. Migraines tend to hurt on just one side of the head and may cause nausea or sensitivity to noise and light. Tension headaches feel like a tightening on both sides of the head. And sinus headaches have a similar pressure, but manifest under the eyes and around cheeks. If headaches cause you to reach inside the medicine cabinet two or three times a week, visit your doctor.
A stomach virus -- which may cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, aches, and a low-grade fever -- requires plenty of rest and lots of clear fluids to avoid dehydration, Bleyer explains. Stick to light-colored beverages and soups at first. Then slowly introduce soft foods such as toast, bananas, mashed potatoes, and applesauce. Food poisoning usually erupts two to 12 hours after eating, and once your system rids itself of the offending substance, you'll feel better. If it's simply heartburn or indigestion you're experiencing, take two Pepto-Bismol Chewable Tablets (above) every hour. If it happens to you frequently, consider this: New research shows that indigestion can be prevented by chewing sugarless gum after eating. The extra saliva your mouth produces helps neutralize stomach acid.