Take Steps to Stay Healthy This Winter
As the cold weather approaches, concerns about cold and flu season increase along
with people’s thermostats. About 30 percent of people in the United States come down with
the flu every season, and 200,000 of them are hospitalized because of serious complications
such as pneumonia. If you have cancer, you are at risk for the same cold weather
problems as other people, but your chances of getting sick are greater because cancer
treatments, such as chemotherapy radiation therapy, can weaken your immune system,
making it harder for your body to fight infections properly.
Here are a few ways to safeguard your health in cold temperatures.
Studies have found that influenza and cold viruses, as well as stomach flu (gastroenteritis),
survive better in cold weather, so the best defense is a good offense: take measures
to avoid getting these viruses.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that cancer patients
undergoing treatment and cancer survivors receive an annual influenza vaccine. Talk
to your doctor about whether you should get the influenza vaccine.
There are two types of flu vaccines: a needle and a nasal spray. The nasal spray
is made from a weakened form of the virus and should not be given to cancer patients.
The needle (“flu shot”) is made from a killed virus, so it cannot make you sick.
However, it takes about two weeks for your immune system to develop the antibodies
that protect you against the flu. Sometimes when people get a flu shot, they already
have been exposed to the flu, but don’t know it yet because they don’t have any
telltale symptoms. They get the shot and begin getting flu symptoms in a few days,
leading them to think the shot made them sick. However, this is just a coincidence.
Because of the way it’s made, the flu shot cannot make you sick.
After you get the flu shot, your arm will probably be a little sore from the injection
and you might get a slight fever and feel tired, but that’s just your body building
The cold and flu season runs from about October to May in the United States. Therefore, the best time to receive the flu shot is in October or November, but the CDC says that the shot is still good even if you get it later in the season. In the past, people have gotten extra flu shots that protect against various strains of the disease, as seen in recent years with the vaccine against a novel virus called H1N1 (swine flu). Because the normal flu shot does not protect against H1N1, a second shot is required to protect yourself against this strain of the virus.
Your family, friends, and caregivers, including children, should also get the influenza
vaccine if you see them frequently, so that they can’t give you the flu.
Unfortunately, the flu shot only protects you from influenza and not the hundreds
of viruses that cause colds and stomach flu.
A good way to avoid all viruses–influenza, colds, and stomach viruses alike –
is to wash your hands frequently. Use soap and warm water and scrub your hands for
15 to 20 seconds (about the time it takes to sing "Happy Birthday" or the alphabet
song). Rinse them well and dry them with a paper towel.
Wash your hands after going to the bathroom, touching someone—including after shaking
hands—and before you eat. You should also wash your hands before you treat any wound
or infected area on your body.
If you don't have access to soap and water, use a hand sanitizer, but make sure
that it contains 60 percent alcohol.
Other easy ways to keep from spreading germs are to cover your nose and mouth with
a tissue when you cough or sneeze. If you don't have a tissue, cough into your arm
instead of your hands. Also avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth.
If you think you have the flu, see your doctor immediately. Your doctor can prescribe
antiviral drugs that shorten flu sickness by a few days, but to be effective, you
must begin them within 48 hours of showing symptoms. You should then stay home until
you feel better, not only to avoid making your illness worse, but also to avoid
spreading the germs.
Postpone visits with friends and family who are sick until they feel better. Keep
a stock of over-the-counter medicines, hand sanitizer, and tissues on hand in case
you get sick. Be sure to consult your physician for a list of over-the-counter medications that will not interfere with your treatment.
Besides washing your hands to avoid gastroenteritis, practice good food safety if
you are getting or have recently finished cancer treatment. Be extra careful when
handling, preparing, and storing food, and wash the counter or surface where you
prepare your food with hot soapy water or antibacterial cleanser.
During the winter, it is important to stay hydrated, so remember to drink lots of
water and other non-caffeinated beverages like juice.
Avoid Extreme Cold Temperatures
Some medications, conditions, and side effects caused by cancer treatment, such
as dehydration, can interfere with your body's temperature, and people who are less
active can have reduced blood flow. In addition, cancer treatments can affect your
nerves, making you less sensitive to extreme temperatures. These put you at risk
for hypothermia and frost bite.
Hypothermia is abnormally low body temperature. When you are exposed
to cold temperatures, your body begins to lose heat faster than it can produce heat.
Low body temperature can affect your brain, making it difficult to think and move
well. Symptoms in adults are shivering, exhaustion, confusion, fumbling hands, memory
loss, and slurred speech.
Frostbite is an injury caused by freezing. The risk of frostbite
is increased in people with poor blood circulation and those who are not dressed
properly for extremely cold temperatures. Signs of frostbite are a white or grayish-yellow
skin area, skin that feels unusually firm or waxy, and numbness.
You can avoid hypothermia and frost bite by spending less time outside when the
temperatures are near freezing or if there are high winds or rain. If you do go
outside, dress in layers and always wear gloves or mittens and a scarf. Always wear
a hat that covers your ears, especially if cancer treatment has caused hair loss.
The areas most prone to frost bite are the fingers, toes, and ears.
Sweating is a side effect of some cancer treatments. If you sweat a lot, change
your wet clothes and bed sheets often to stay warm and dry. And remember to drink
plenty of non-caffeinated fluids.
Radiation therapy and some chemotherapy also affect your bones, so you may be
at higher risk of breaking a bone if you fall on the ice. To stay strong, bones
need vitamin D and calcium. Sunshine is one of the best sources of vitamin D, and
you only need to spend about 10 to 15 minutes outside to get the recommended amount
of vitamin D. You can also eat foods that are fortified with vitamin D. Talk to
your doctor about taking a vitamin supplement if you don't think you are getting
enough vitamin D.
Cancer treatments may make your skin dry, itchy, and cracked, which is worse in
the winter because the humidity level drops. Use a moisturizer frequently and if
your lips are also dry and cracked, apply lip balm. Use gentle soaps and laundry
detergents and avoid long, hot baths and showers. Consider using a humidifier.
Much of what you need to do to protect your health is common sense, but the key
is to make these strategies part of your regimen during the winter.
Both a common cold and influenza are contagious respiratory illnesses, but cold
symptoms are usually milder than influenza symptoms. Flu symptoms usually come on
Signs and Symptoms of the Common Cold
- Stuffy or runny nose
- Sore throat
- Watery eyes
- Mild headache
- Mild body aches
Signs and Symptoms of Influenza
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Body aches
- Sometimes diarrhea and vomiting
* Not everyone with flu will have a fever.