How Doctors Will Stay Healthy This Holiday Season
Who better to ask for personal tips on avoiding illness than a bunch of doctors? We talked to a range of Columbia specialists to hear their habits and routines for staying healthy through the holidays. While no one can guarantee a sickness-free season, steal these strategies for your best chance against a variety of conditions.
Of course, all of our doctors mentioned getting the annual flu shot and updated COVID-19 vaccine for an extra layer of protection against severe illness. Our doctors also recommend the RSV vaccine for anyone eligible.
In addition, here are their other personal tips.
To me, when traveling during the holidays, wearing masks is very sensible since there is often little control over who sits next to you. While N95 respirators are best, surgical masks can also be effective (cloth masks are not very protective). But viruses can also be on the surfaces of seats and tray tables, so I wipe them down. If I have a pack of wipes with me, that's best, but I’ve certainly improvised with hand sanitizer and a clean napkin.
When it comes to holiday sightseeing and performances (I like to go to the theater in the city), objects such as doorknobs and railings can also be a source of infection, particularly with certain viruses. So, in addition to wearing a surgical mask, I carry hand sanitizer and use it frequently.
Many people ignore new symptoms around the holidays, either because they don’t want to ruin everyone’s fun time, or because they worry about going to an Emergency Room that might be packed with contagious COVID-19 patients. But it is really important that if you have a new symptom, you seek medical attention, and this is something I tell my patients and loved ones. It has been found that death is more likely to occur en route to the hospital or in the ER during the holidays, suggesting that people are likely waiting too long to address their new symptoms.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve kept a habit of pressing elevator buttons with an elbow or knuckle. I also use hand sanitizer after riding the subway and holding the handrails.
When visiting vulnerable loved ones (such as those who are immunosuppressed, elderly, or who are cancer patients) or new babies, even the slightest sign of a cold is enough for me to do a home test for COVID-19. If it’s positive, I’ll stay home. If negative, I’ll still wear a surgical mask. Better safe than sorry!
I try to avoid touching my face in holiday crowds, in addition to wearing a well-fitting surgical mask and washing my hands regularly in a restroom, especially before eating (and carrying hand sanitizer when there’s no restroom). I also clean my phone regularly with a wipe.
As a gastroenterologist, I also have to say eating well is an important part of helping our immune system stay strong and helping us recover if we do get sick. Some people turn to supplements and probiotics to boost immunity, but those products are quite expensive without clear benefits, and they should never replace a well-rounded diet. However, the one supplement I do recommend is fiber: When you're eating rich foods, such as holiday dishes, getting enough fiber will help keep your bowel movements regular.
My sister, Stacey Isidoro, MD, is also a rehab medicine specialist. At holiday gatherings, we’ll greet family and friends with a touchless gesture, like a wave, air hug, air kiss, heart shape with our hands—or at least a fist or elbow bump—instead of hugs. These show love and affection while also being mindful of other people’s comfort levels and protecting them from germs.
We also tell patients and loved ones to continue working out during the holidays—but to practice self-compassion and grace if it gets too busy for a full workout or if they gain a few pounds. A little exercise for five minutes goes a long way to support your immune system, so even some movement is worthwhile. Also, for intense outdoor physical activities like shoveling snow, we recommend checking with your doctor first.
If it's nice enough out, I'll bundle up and choose an outdoor table at a restaurant instead of sitting inside. In large indoor crowds and on public transportation, I'll wear a mask (ideally a KN95, but if I don’t have one, I’ll wear a surgical mask) and keep hand sanitizer with me.
If my family is hosting a holiday gathering, we make sure to set out hand sanitizer for our guests. For a large family event, I ask everyone to test for COVID-19 beforehand, and I do my own testing at home. If any family members haven’t tested, I’ll actually test them myself.
Seth Feltheimer, MD, is an Associate Professor of Medicine