Five Ways to Avoid the Flu

It is not new news that the flu is bad news. Influenza has been the bane of human beings for centuries. Witness the so-called “Spanish Flu” of 1918 that killed an estimated 20-50 million people worldwide. (Yes, 20 - 50 MILLION.) Statistics like that are not just something you shrug off. Even if only 20 million died, that’s like a lot, right?  So the flu can be more than an inconvenience; it can be a killer.  What can you do about it?  There are no perfect solutions, but these five tips might help you ward off this year’s version of the flu, which is reported to be especially nasty.

Get a flu Shot

Duh! It seems so simple, but millions each year forego the flu vaccine because it involves an expense, it can be inconvenient and, well, just general inertia. Now, each year’s flu vaccine won’t give you 100 percent protection against the strain or strains of flu that are circulating each year. The flu virus mutates like mad, making the creation of a vaccine to combat it a never-ending activity. But getting the flu shot will be a lot better than not getting the flu shot. Right now it is about 60-70 percent effective in preventing the flu.

Stay away from People

You might think that avoiding obviously sick individuals (we all know a few of them) is a key to avoiding the flu, especially if they are coughing and sneezing. Well, that’s true, but it doesn’t go far enough. Since the flu virus is spread by breathing, unless you typically hang exclusively with zombies, you can contract the virus simply by breathing a particle exhaled by someone else.  (Perhaps zombies breathe but being dead we don’t see why they have to.) You probably like people so it all seems so unfair, because people are everywhere, but that’s the deal.

Hangout with Folks in Surgical Masks

If your are an inveterate people-person (you know who you are) and just can’t stand to forego human interaction in the way us solitary writer-types do on a daily basis, then hang out with folks wearing surgical masks or, better yet, persuade your friends to wear them. You can pretend you are having a theme costume party.  Here’s the weird thing.  The surgical mask will help prevent an infected individual from spreading the flu virus because it keeps the particles usually released by breathing from going out into the atmosphere BUT it won’t do too much to prevent you from inhaling virus-laden stuff in the air.  Why? The spaces around the mask will allow you to breathe in the virus.

Avoid touching hard objects

Yes, this might be more difficult for some of you than others, but an odd, little-known fact is that the flu virus isn’t just in tiny droplets in the air that then drop to the ground harmlessly. No, that pesky virus will live on inanimate objects — pretty much all of your stuff and maybe one or two of your friends — for as long as three days. Even weirder, that creepy virus that does all kinds of bad things to your insides likes the outside of hard surfaces.  So door handles, cabinets, drawers, counter tops can all be harboring little virus bombs that will later explode in your gut. Don’t touch anything hard without wearing gloves might be a rule to live by this winter.

Use Disinfectants on your Hands

Yes, we said that you get the flu by inhaling a dose of the virus, but you can get that virus close enough to breathe if it gets on your hands. So wash ‘em like crazy — you know, a real surgical-prep scrub-in — and use hand sanitizer. We admit it won’t be totally preventative, because we know you, and we know you live and work with other people.  Those people can be infected and pass it on to you. But if you try to keep the virus off your hands and you try to keep your hands out of your mouth and eyes, you’ll be better off than if you didn’t.

And that’s all we’ve got for you. I’m simply going to lock myself away in my bunker for the next four or five months, but that’s just me.  And nobody will ll miss me. Stay flu-free!

6 Surprising Truths about Sweat

You’re at the gym, grinding away on the elliptical and breaking a wicked sweat. If you’re wondering why you’re so sweaty, it’s time for a primer on this basic bodily function. Here are six need-to-know facts about sweat:

1. The more intense your workout, the more you sweat.
Physical exertion requires our cells to make energy. Tapping into that energy creates heat, which our body needs to release in order to cool down. “Our body wants to keep us at an even temperature,” says Greg Cloutier, project manager for the Human Performance and Exercise Science Laboratory at Northeastern University’s Bouvé College of Health Sciences. “The blood gets pushed through capillaries in the skin, and it gets cooled by the evaporating sweat on our skin, much like a car radiator. The more we work, the more heat we create.”

2. People who are fit sweat less.
As you become increasingly fit, your body becomes more efficient, so you don’t generate as much heat to make energy, Cloutier says. If you’re in shape, you won’t perspire as much because you have less insulation creating heat. In other words: The more you work out, the fewer tissues you’ll need to wipe your brow.

3. That sweat needs to be replenished.
Perspiring means your body is releasing water, which needs to be replenished by drinking more liquids. If you exercise strenuously for 90 minutes or more, you’ll also need more electrolytes, which help regulate the balance of fluids in your body. Try consuming a sports beverage that contains sodium, potassium and chloride -- but go for a low-cal version if you’re working out for less than two hours (to avoid any unnecessary calories!).

4. Everyone has two types of sweat glands.
When your body temperature rises during a workout, your autonomic nervous system stimulates what are known as the eccrine glands to sweat in order to cool down. That perspiration is made up mostly of water and salt, as well as small amounts of other electrolytes.

Apocrine glands, on the other hand, are usually triggered by emotions like nervousness or stress. They’re located where you have hair follicles, such as the scalp, armpits and groin, says Dr. Pamela Jakubowicz, a dermatologist at Montefiore Medical Center and assistant clinical professor of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. These glands secrete a fatty sweat under stress, and “when sweat from these glands is released, bacteria breaks it down,” Jakubowicz says, which can cause body odor.

5. Sweat too much? It might be a medical problem.
People who sweat too much may have hyperhidrosis, which may result from a health condition, such as an overactive thyroid gland, low blood glucose or menopause. If you feel like your sweat is out of control, talk to your doctor, who can offer a prescription-strength antiperspirant.

6. Mopping up your sweat prevents breakouts.
While there’s no medical reason to wipe up your sweat, doing so certainly helps prevent the machines at your gym from getting doused. “You may also want to do that so you prevent breakouts, which are caused when dead skin gets stuck and attracts bacteria” to your face and other areas of your body, Jakubowicz says. So always bring a few tissues with you during your workout.

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Photo: Corbis Images

The Truth About the Summer Cold Virus

Q. Are there different types of viruses in warm weather? 
For the most part, viruses are the same year-round. But there is one kind that's more common in the summer: the enterovirus, also called the stomach flu. This virus, which lasts a week or two, causes digestive issues and respiratory symptoms.

Because enteroviruses are spread the same way as colds -- through direct contact with another person or an infected surface -- remind your kids to wash their hands often and avoid sharing drinking glasses, eating utensils or water bottles.

Q. How should I treat a summer cold virus? 
Don't ask your pediatrician for antibiotics, since they're not useful for viruses. Instead, treat a fever with a pain reliever, like Tylenol. Cough medicine and decongestants can provide relief from cold symptoms. Check the packaging for age restrictions. And if your child is suffering from stomach issues caused by the enterovirus -- and is 6 or older -- you can give her an antacid.

Of course, make sure your child gets plenty of rest. You should also ensure she's drinking regularly, since the hot weather ups the risk for dehydration. Cooling baths, light clothing and air-conditioning can also help your little one stay comfortable while she recovers.

If one kid in your family is sick, how do you protect the rest of the brood? Do you let him or her play with brothers and sisters? Tell us in the comments below.

Create an At-home Spa: 4 Simple Herbal Recipes

You're in serious need of a pampering day at the spa, but you're short on time and money. The solution? Transform your own bathroom into a sanctuary. At the Lake Austin Spa Resort, I teach classes on how to turn common kitchen and garden ingredients into luxurious skin scrubs, bath salts and more.

The key is using herbs and flowers. Certain aromas have a powerful effect on the nervous system, leaving you feeling relaxed or energized. I recommend using the following ingredients for their scents:

  • Lavender: This soothing, antimicrobial herb has been shown to help you relax and get a good night's sleep. Wesleyan University conducted a 31-person study and found that when people sniffed lavender before bedtime, they got more slow-wave (or deep) sleep and reported feeling more energetic in the morning.
  • Eucalyptus: Developing research suggests this woodsy scent may help break up mucus and stop coughs, according to the National Institutes of Health. And a study published in the journal Respiratory Medicine shows that eucalyptol, the active ingredient, has anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Mint: Perfect for hot days, spearmint and peppermint are cooling and refreshing. And a recent study published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy also found that applying menthol to the skin increases blood flow.
  • Ginger: When grated and added to a bath, the spicy root provides an invigorating sensory energy boost. It can be mixed with coconut oil for a mildly exfoliating scrub.
  • Rosemary: This herb has a refreshing, stimulating effect.
  • Rose Petals: Pluck them from your own garden to add a sweet fragrance to any bath or body treatment.

Once you've chosen your herbs, mix them up with one of the following recipes. With a few household ingredients, you can go from stressed and tired to relaxed and glowing:

Basic Bath Infusion

  • 4 cups fresh herbs (or 2 cups dried)
  • 4 cups water

Boil water in a large pot; add herbs. Stir, cover and remove from heat. Steep for 10 minutes, strain and pour into a hot bath.

Soothing Bath Bag

  • 1/4 cup powdered milk
  • 1/4 cup Epsom salt
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup dried herbs
  • 10 drops of essential oil

Stir together all ingredients and place in a muslin bag (or several layers of cheesecloth); secure with a rubber band. Add to hot bath and steep for several minutes. Open the bag and use the softened herbs as an exfoliating body scrub. You can also seal unused bags in a glass jar for several months.

Energizing Coffee Body Scrub

  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 4-inch sprig of fresh rosemary
  • 1/4 cup coffee beans, finely ground
  • 2 tablespoons bentonite clay (found in health food stores)
  • 3 tablespoons oil, such as olive, grapeseed, coconut or avocado
  • 3 drops each of rosemary oil and grapefruit or peppermint oil

Combine sugar and rosemary in a spice grinder and process until finely ground. Pour into a medium-sized bowl and mix with the remaining ingredients. Use the scrub on skin; shower off. Moisturize with additional body oil.

Skin-Softening Bath Blend

  • 1/4 cup rolled or instant oatmeal
  • 1/4 cup milk powder
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup herbs of choice
  • 10 to 15 drops of essential oil
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 2 teaspoons body oil

In a food processor, combine oatmeal, milk powder, sugar and herbs until coarsely ground. Pour in bowl and combine with essential oil, honey and body oil. Place in muslin bag and steep in a hot bath for a few minutes. Use cold tea bags (green tea or chamomile) over your eyes as you enjoy your bath.

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Your Home Is Clean … But Is It Healthy?

You've worked tirelessly to make your home a haven for the whole family. But did you know that even the tidiest of homes can play host to troublesome germs and allergens, which can lead to endless sniffles or the common cold?

“That's because your hands are actually the dirtiest surface in your house, and you're responsible for spreading those germs every time you touch the handles, faucets, railings, light switches and microwave buttons," says cleaning expert Don Aslett, author of more than 40 home care books, including the best-selling Clutter's Last Stand.

But not to worry: You can get rid of germs by staying on top of them. Here's your master cleaning schedule for keeping germs at bay to ensure your family's health. Print it out and post it on your fridge to use as a reminder.

1. Kitchen and bathroom sinks and countertops
How often: daily

You touch the faucets in the kitchen each time you cook (and handle raw meat). And in the bathroom, you touch the faucets and countertops just about every time you go into the room. Sinks and drains in these two rooms are home to loads of bacteria, including E. coli.

Spray the faucets, sinks and counters with an antibacterial spray. Let it sit (10 minutes is ideal to kill germs and bacteria), then wipe with a washable microfiber cloth, which is more sanitary than a sponge and traps more than a regular rag would, says Aslett.

2. Clothes, bed linens, kitchen and bathroom towels, and bath mats
How often: every three days

Instead of letting laundry pile up, it's healthier to do it every few days. This helps avoid mold growth in the hamper where moisture can get trapped from soiled clothes and linens. It also helps to get rid of dead skin cells that can become part of house dust and attract dust mites. 

3. Kitchen and bathroom floors, and the toilet seat
How often: twice a week

Believe it or not, there are more germs on the bathroom floor than on the toilet seat. That's because flushing enables microscopic germs to end up on the bathroom floor (and floors are cleaned much less often than toilets). It's good to get into the habit of closing the lid before you flush. Additionally, when you clean, be sure to use a disinfectant to wipe down the seat and lid.

In both the kitchen and the bathroom, mop floors with a bleach-based cleanser. In the kitchen, be sure to clean up food particles and grease, because they can attract unwanted and unhealthy pests.

4. Carpets, cabinets, sofas and mattresses
How often: weekly

Dust mites can cause allergic reactions in some people, so it's important to prevent exposure as much as possible. Dust mites feed on dead skin cells (yours and your pet's), which makes mattresses and pillows some of their favorite hiding places. Protect yourself by wrapping your mattress with a dust-mite-proof cover and vacuum, or wash pillows weekly. If you can live without a feather pillow, switch to one with synthetic material, which is less likely to attract dust mites.

Common household dust doesn't have germs in it since it lacks the moisture that germs require, but it does harbor allergens. Vacuum carpets, soft furnishings and bookshelves weekly (two to three times a week if you have pets) using a machine equipped with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter. Follow with an antibacterial spray to wipe down all hard surfaces.

5. Tubs, shower stalls and trash cans
How often: weekly

Bathing removes germs and viruses from your body, yes, but not all of them die down the drain. In fact, bacteria thrives in moist environments. Use a disinfecting cleanser once a week to wash the sides and floor of the tub and shower stall and the inside of trash cans. Dry the surfaces with a towel, or leave the door or curtain to the shower open to air-dry.

6. Refrigerator and other appliances
How often: weekly

Clean out the fridge before you go grocery shopping and toss spoiled food and leftovers that have been there for more than a couple of days. Then give all major appliances, including the handles and buttons, a healthy scrub with soap and water or disinfectant spray.

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