With the warm days of spring practice still months away, most of the continental United States and northern hemisphere find themselves in the grips of winter and smack dab in the middle of cold and flu season. Indoors or outdoors your immune system takes a beating during pre-season rugby training, but with a few small lifestyle changes you can strengthen your immune system and reduce your chance of getting sick this winter.
Fundamentals of the flu
There are over 200 cold viruses and of that 50% are rhinoviruses. The average adult catches 2-4 colds a year, with children around 6-8 times a year. The flu virus, on the other hand, is very different; it is responsible for 20,000 deaths every year, with most people becoming sick during the colder months. That’s because the flu virus becomes stable in colder temperatures, with little transmission around 86 degrees. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): The single best way to protect against the flu is to get vaccinated each year. (1)
Even healthy people get sick and spread the flu every year so being healthy isn’t a guarantee that you won’t get sick. The flu vaccine works by building antibodies in the body about two weeks after vaccination. The seasonal vaccine contains viruses that are thought to be most prevalent that particular flu season. The CDC recommends the injectable vaccine including inactivated influenza vaccines and recombinant influenza vaccines. “The nasal spray flu vaccine (live attenuated influenza vaccine or LAIV) should not be used during 2016-2017.” There is no cure for the common cold or flu, but many physicians will treat symptoms as they arise. (2)
So how do we get sick?
Dr. Terrance Braden, Medical Director- Bannasch Institute for Advanced Rehabilitation Medicine in Lakeland Florida, and Former Team Physician for Arkansas State University Rugby Club describes how the common cold and flu can easily be transmitted when you least expect it. “Droplets carrying the flu or common cold are spread by coughing, sneezing or talking and can be sprayed out up to 6 feet away.” Also, the virus can live on surfaces contaminated by the person with the flu or cold. “You touch that object, then touch your own mouth or nose you have been exposed,” said Braden.
Making a habit of covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze, and washing your hands can limit your amount of exposure during cold and flu season. If you are exposed, Braden describes symptoms of the cold or flu to be roughly the same. “If you have a cough, runny nose, fever, muscle aches you may have a cold, with [the] flu they are more intense. The only way to tell if it is the flu is by specialized tests done within the first few days of illness.”
Also during this time of year be sure to differentiate between allergies or the cold and flu. With rugby being a field sport, allergies are a common problem not only during the summer but the winter as well. If you have upper respiratory symptoms that span for weeks or don’t increase or decrease you may have seasonal allergies. Pollen is usually not a big factor this time of year, and most find themselves allergic to indoor irritants like dust mites, mold and animal dander. There are plenty of medications that you can get over the counter without a prescription to help alleviate symptoms of seasonal allergies.
4 steps for avoiding sickness
Healthy lifestyle habits are an important step when taking measures to protect or strengthen your immune system this time of year. Dr. Braden's list below a few guidelines to help you along your way to preventive lifestyle choices:
- Wash your hands with soap and water, if not available use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Avoid touching your face with unwashed hands
- Maintain your rest-recovery cycle and nutrition before you are exposed. Getting worn down by overtraining or poor nutrition will diminish your immune system ability to fight the viruses
- If you are an athlete and have symptoms, wear a surgical mask (found in all drug stores) to decrease some of the droplet spreading to your family, friends, and teammates.
- If you use cloth towels in the bathroom, change them to paper towels. Turn the water faucet off with a paper towel after washing your hands to decrease spread.
Stay away from 'sick' situations
There are 4, 742 different species of bacteria on the human hand. (3) Many overlook the fact that every day in our life we are touching things, the car, keyboards, cell phones, and doorknobs. Paying particular attention to the area around your fingernails, you should wash your hands with soapy water for 20 seconds. Doing this about 6 times a day would be considered a basic hygiene minimal, more often if you or a teammate happen to be sick. “Should I use hot or cold water?” Getting your hands wet is not enough to kill germs. Water as cold as 40 degrees has been shown to reduce bacteria, still many believe that if you use hot water when washing your hands, you can do a better job.
Children are notorious for getting sick this time of year. If you’re a parent, help stop the spread of illness in your house by laying down a good handwashing foundation with your little ones. Pay special attention to their toys, play areas, and eating utensils when sanitizing your home. The bathroom and other common areas in the house can become a virtual cesspool if even one person becomes sick, pay special attention the surfaces in these areas is vital to making your home a fortress during cold and flu season.
Maintaining your rest and recovery schedule is important. Also, pushing yourself to the brink and not respecting your body's need for proper nutrition can leave your immune system ill prepared to take on this season’s bug. Remember the above the neck rule. If your symptoms are mainly above the neck and don’t include body fatigue or fever, it’s ok to work out. If your symptoms get worse, it may be time to take a break from rugby training and gym workouts.
If while you’re training, you find yourself sick, the surgical mask is a viable option. Some may find it difficult to train with a surgical mask, my advice for those is just to stay home. Getting worn out while sick will do neither you nor your teammates any favors. There is no shame in taking a necessary rest day, take this time to focus on your nutrition and getting back to the pitch as soon as you can. Foods rich in Vitamin C and other essential vitamins and nutrients like oats and barley, yogurt and good ole chicken soup should make up a good part of your diet.
Whether in the bathroom at home or in the field clubhouse, changing the bathroom towels to paper will help decrease the spread of organisms that cause illness. Going the extra step to make sure your bathroom facilities are sanitary during cold and flu season will be something your household and teammates will appreciate. Make a habit of turning the faucet off with the paper towel after you have washed your hands. Touching the faucet or doorknob with wet hands does nothing but help spread surface bacteria.
You are what you eat
Lifestyle changes such as washing your hands, covering your mouth when you cough, and maintaining a proper rest and recovery cycle are mainly preventive measures that you can take. Preparing your immune system with a healthy diet is another way to reduce the chances of getting sick, or at least reduce the amount of time you experience symptoms. Your diet during the cold and flu season is just as important as washing your hands.
According to Dr. Braden, foods such as garlic, sweet potato, turmeric, dark leafy greens, wild caught salmon, ginger, mushrooms, broccoli, and green tea are also great for getting the necessary nutrients to aid in immune system health. Getting the necessary nutrients doesn’t always have to be taking a vitamin. Find tasty and interesting ways to use the above ingredients such as chowders, curries, soups and bakes perfect for this time of year. Look up recipes or crack a cookbook for more help there.
Supplements can be useful for preventing illness when used in combination with a healthy diet. From the Ruck Science range, we suggest the L-arginine based amino acid complex and beet-based nitrate powder, both of which will provide increased nitric oxide production useful for muscle repair and accelerating recovery.
What if I do get sick?
Depending on how long you experience symptoms, getting sick can put a damper in anyone’s training schedule. Body aches, fever, congestion, runny nose and other symptoms of illness can come on suddenly and stick with you for a while. Despite taking measures to strengthen your immune system, maintaining a healthy diet, and making lifestyle changes sometimes your number is called, and you get sick anyway. If that happens many preventive measures are not as effective after the fact, and you should start to focus on ways to treat the cold or flu.
Washing your hands and covering your mouth are still important, but if an athlete does find themselves getting sick Dr. Braden lays out some guidelines to alleviate symptoms of the common cold or flu virus. “Relative rest [is important], exercising while sick does nothing to improve your performance.” Many athletes feel that they can’t take a day off from the gym or field. If you are to get sick taking care of your body with rest and nutrients are pretty much all you can do. If you fail to get the necessary rest, then you leave yourself vulnerable to getting sicker or having your illness last longer. Listen to your doctor; if they prescribe medication take it as prescribed. If your doctor says rest, then rest. It’s that simple.
If getting rest is basecamp, then hydration is the top of the mountain. Hydrating with water, fruit juice, and non-alcoholic beverages can ease your symptoms and help break up any congestion that you have in your chest or upper respiratory systems. As you hydrate, remember that electrolytes are also important in case you’re running a fever, or experience nausea. Again, some natural remedies that Dr. Braden recommends are foods such as fennel, anise seeds, garlic, foods high in Omega-3 fatty acids such as salmon and mackerel, vitamin c, yogurt, and kefir, a fermented milk drink made with kefir which is packed with probiotics.
While some swear by the “Hot Toddy” a mixed drink made of liquor and water with honey, herbs, and spices, and served hot. That route is not always an option. A non-alcoholic version contains honey, hot water or citrus fruit juice, sugar, and a pinch of salt. This drink will replenish your simple sugars, electrolytes, and ease general discomfort while experiencing standard cold or flu symptoms.
But things can get worse, and it's important to be on the lookout for severe symptoms such as;
- coughing that won’t resolve
- coughing with vomiting
- shortness of breath
- wheezing when breathing
- coughing up yellow or green phlegm
- an extremely high fever of 103 F or 39.4 C
- fever for more than 3 days
- stiff neck
- visual problems
If any of these symptoms occur, Dr. Braden recommends that you seek medical attention quickly and follow the advice of your doctor. Remember there is no shame in taking a few days off to ensure that when the snow melts and the temperatures start to rise, you are ready to get back on the training park. Your teammates will thank you for staying away from them too.
Final thoughts on staying healthy for rugby
Understanding how you get sick and what happens when you are exposed to the cold or flu virus can help you stay ahead off illness this winter. Making a few lifestyle changes such as hand washing, and sanitation goes hand in hand with actions such as getting the flu shot and eating right. Remember the important nutrients to add to your diet If you do happen to get sick, having a diet rich in nutrients and staying hydrated could reduce the length and severity of the cold or flu.
If all else fails, seek medical attention and take a break from the gym or training field. Rest and recovery are important, but by resting you also reduce the chance of spreading the illness to others during times which you may be contagious. Wash your children’s toys and other common areas they frequent, start healthy hand washing habits soon. Keeping these convenient tips and recommendations in mind can make cold and flu season a little less severe this year.
Photo Credit - emilbrand.com
(1) - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2) - Human Rhinoviruses
(3) - How Many Bacteria Species Can Coexist on a Single Hand?