This holiday season Kentuckians of all ages continue to deal with a trifecta in sickness resurgence: flu, RSV and COVID-19.
The Commonwealth is on track to have the worst flu season in the last 10 years. As of Monday, Dec. 19, the governor's office reported six new pediatric flu deaths, and the Department of Public Health said none of those children had received a flu shot. The department also reported that fewer than 40% of Kentucky children have received a flu shot this season. State leaders are encouraging families to get their flu shots.
RSV can affect anyone, but is most serious for infants and older adults. COVID-19 cases are also increasing in the state after Thanksgiving.
UKNow talked to Ilhem Messaoudi, PhD, chair of the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Molecular Genetics in the UK College of Medicine, for ways to stay healthy during the holiday season.
UKNow: With three viruses circulating right now (flu, RSV and COVID-19), what advice do you have for people to stay healthy?
Messaoudi: My big advice is to stay up to date on your vaccinations. We have great vaccines for COVID and influenza. Flu cases are peaking at much higher levels than we've seen in the last 10 years. All the data seems to indicate that the flu vaccine this year is a pretty good match for what's circulating. So that's a great reason to go get your vaccine. Get your bivalent omicron vaccine because it will protect you against ancestral strains as well as what's circulating right now.
RSV is different. In older kids and immunocompetent adults, it tends to be just an annoying episode of respiratory illness.
The at-risk populations for RSV are the very young and the very old. It’s problematic when you have kids under the age of one really getting sick. Some therapeutics are out there, but they're reserved for premature babies with a high risk of cardiovascular complications from RSV.
The virus can be a huge problem in nursing homes. If you're visiting a loved one in a nursing home, just be very cognizant of that.
On top of keeping up with your vaccine regimens, I would say if you have a baby at home, an older parent or an older relative just be extra careful with them. Maybe avoid large gatherings or mask up if you need to go somewhere crowded.
UKNow: Are there any steps we can take to keep our immune systems healthy?
Messaoudi: I know it sounds cliche, but eating a very balanced diet this time of year is a big help. You also want to be cognizant of your body mass index and any underlying conditions like obesity, smoking or any substance use issues. All those things are known to weaken the immune system.
Trying to address those underlying conditions with the help of a primary care physician is always great — not just this time of the year, but in general. We’re approaching a new year, which can be a great motivator for healthy resolutions.
I also increase my vitamin C and zinc intake just to cover this period where I know there are going to be a lot of respiratory pathogens circulating because some studies suggested it improves immunity. The reason why these two go together is just like calcium. You shouldn't take a calcium supplement without vitamin D. Those two things work together.
There’s nothing specific you can take if you already have a cold, but taking those little supplements, like getting a multivitamin in over time, just ensures that you're not missing any micronutrients that you may need. My reason? There is evidence-based data for vitamin C and zinc being helpful.
UKNow: What can parents do to keep their children’s immune systems healthy?
Messaoudi: The same things. Make sure your children are eating a balanced diet. I give my kids a little vitamin C and combo gummies that they love.
I think just keeping them healthy with good nutrition and exercise along with keeping them well-rounded is important. Making sure they’re seeing their peers and getting that interaction they need. We want our kids to be mentally and physically well because both have impacts on the immune system.
UKNow: What impacts our immune system?
Messaoudi: There are a multitude of things: if you’re not getting enough sleep, if you're not eating well or if you're drinking too much. All substance use disorders impact the immune system.
Obesity is a big driver of immunosuppression and chronic inflammation. So, we want to avoid that if we can or address it. I think there's this big myth that people have to run and do weightlifting and things like that. But there are great studies that getting your 10,000 steps in a day, that type of walking, is a great way to just stay healthy, exercise and improve outcomes from that perspective.
Taking care of your mental well-being is really important. We know that stress induces high levels of cortisol, which is a well-known immunosuppressant. So, sleeping, trying to address stress or the underlying conditions of stress, focusing on holistic nutrition, engaging with your loved ones and focusing on positive things are all great ways to keep your body healthy.
UKNow: Why does sickness spread more easily during the colder months and holidays?
Messaoudi: That’s a good question. If you ask my mom, she’ll tell you it’s because you go outside with wet hair. But there are other reasons.
We know influenza A follows the migration of birds from the Southern hemisphere to the Northern hemisphere and back. As the birds interact with other animals, the virus mutates and comes up with its new lineages for this year. It’s a constantly evolving virus.
Back to the cold — this time of year people are indoors more and there are more gatherings, particularly for the holiday. People are traveling more. So, we're creating these events where there's going to be more transmission of respiratory pathogens.
Finally, there are some studies that show that cold air can damage the lining of our respiratory tract, setting the stage for more infections.
UKNow: What steps can folks who are traveling take to not catch or spread sickness?
Messaoudi: I would mask up in an airplane. I still do, even in a massive airport with so many people from all over the place. It’s a great mixing bowl for all those pathogens to be in. So, it’s not a bad idea to take extra precautions. If you could drive, I would say drive and avoid airplanes.
We know that people have not been able to see their families in maybe the same ways they would pre-COVID. That goes back to the importance of mental health and well-being. So it's a cost/benefit analysis as people make plans.
Right now, if I were an immunocompromised individual, I would be very careful and thoughtful about where I went. I would say if you're coughing or not feeling well, mask up or maybe just not go to that one thing that you were going to go to for the sake of everyone else around you.
UK Retail Pharmacies now offer a wide range of point-of-care services without a prescription, including vaccines for COVID-19 and flu. You can find more information about the services offered or make an appointment online here.