Stay Healthy During Winter Cold and Flu Season

Your winter woes answered, with tips on how to treat cold symptoms, body changes, injuries and more.

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Q. Do I need to replace my toothbrush if I've been sick?


A. It's not necessary, says Angela Myers, M.D., director of the pediatric infectious diseases fellowship program at Children's Mercy Hospitals & Clinics. Theoretically, bacteria and viruses could still remain on the bristles, but there's no evidence that people have an increased risk of being reinfected by their toothbrush. Just toss it when the bristles become frayed, about every three or four months.

Originally published in the February 2014 issue of Family Circle magazine.

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Q. I've had a cold for what seems like weeks. Should I see a doctor?


A. Yes. The typical cold lasts just seven to nine days, with people usually feeling the worst on days two to four, says Priya Wagle, M.D., an ear, nose and throat specialist in private practice in Linwood, New Jersey. "If you experience symptoms for a longer period of time, check with your doctor to be sure you don't have something more serious, like a sinus infection. A cold is a virus, so antibiotics won't help, but sinusitis can be bacterial and is treated with a prescription."

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Q. I fall into a funk every winter -- tired, unmotivated and moody. Why?


A. Gray skies and the constant need to scrape frost from your windshield are enough to bring anyone down. But if you struggle to find joy in the things that normally make you happy, you may be suffering from season affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that usually occurs during the colder months. Some doctors believe that reduced sunlight may cause a drop in serotonin, the brain chemical that makes you feel happy. Try making a few lifestyle changes: Let more light into your home, get outside for at least a few minutes each morning and exercise daily. If you're still feeling down, visit your doctor to discuss other treatment options.

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Q. Last year I hurt my back shoveling. How do I prevent it from happening again?


A. Wear layers, says Jack Stern, M.D., a spine specialist in White Plains, New York. "That'll increase blood flow, making you less likely to pull a muscle." Then grab a lightweight shovel made of plastic or aluminum. While you work, keep your knees bent, take a water break every 15 minutes and vary your technique (throw a pile to your left, then to the right). Before you start—and after you're done—do five of each of these stretches inside.

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Q. My hands are always cold. Do I have poor circulation?


A. Not necessarily. If you have no other symptoms, your body may simply be trying to maintain its normal temperature. Hands so chilly that you can't concentrate on anything else, though, may signal a circulation or nerve problem.

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Q. Should you really feed a cold and starve a fever?


A. There may be some truth to this adage. Since colds usually drag on for days and drain your energy, it's vital to keep eating a diet full of beneficial nutrients, says Denise Snyder, nutrition scientist and clinical trials manager at Duke University School of Nursing. Fevers, on the other hand, typically last for a shorter period of time and result in a loss of appetite. "In this case the focus should be on getting plenty of rest and fluids," recommends Snyder.