How first responders can boost immunity during pandemic

As we deal with COVID-19, it’s important to keep our immune systems functioning as efficiently as possible

Amid the current COVID-19 crisis, not to mention the more than 200 mutating cold-causing viruses floating around as well, what is a first responder to do to avoid getting sick?

There are precautions that we can all take to ensure that viruses like COVID-19 are not passed from person to person; however, as firefighters, EMTs and medics, our exposure is almost inevitable due to our job requirements.

While it can be hard to dodge every germ, there are proactive ways to boost your immune system to help block infection. Here are the best ways:

While it can be hard to dodge every germ, there are proactive ways to boost your immune system to help block infection.
While it can be hard to dodge every germ, there are proactive ways to boost your immune system to help block infection. (Photo/Getty Images)

1. Wash, rinse, repeat

It's commonsense to not shake hands or get near a sick person, but we don’t have much choice as EMTs, paramedics and firefighters. We all know that we will inevitably be in contact with ill people at some time throughout our shift.

One of the most effective ways to prevent illness is simply washing your hands properly and frequently. Wash your hands and encourage those around you to do the same. Most viruses are spread through direct contact. Shaking hands and touching doorknobs, keyboards and telephones are all easy ways to catch germs. Wash hands as often as possible, scrubbing with soap and hot water for at least 20 seconds. Keep hand sanitizer available for when handwashing is not possible.

It’s also imperative to properly wipe down equipment and rigs often. And don’t be afraid to thoroughly wipe down the firehouse. Wipe down germy areas – light switches, doorknobs, phones, computer keyboards, and TV remotes – with your favorite cleaning product.

2. Drink plenty of fluids

General good health practices keep your body strong and ready to fend off germs and viruses – and this includes drinking plenty of water. In fact, one study found that staying hydrated may boost an immune response to enable your body to better fight the viruses. Drink a lot of fluids, especially water, and avoid caffeinated drinks. Shoot for eight glasses of water per day, more if you consume caffeinated beverages or have a strenuous shift or call.

3. Exercise

Exercise not only makes you perform your job better, but it also boosts your immune system. Additionally, warding off extra weight is important for overall health, particularly when it comes to preventing illness. Not only does exercise improve the circulation of white blood cells throughout your body, but it has also been shown to increase the production of natural killer T-cells, which are essential for maintaining an optimum immune response. The amount of exercise required to obtain an immune boost is relatively low: 20 minutes of brisk walking 4-5 times per week has been shown to significantly improve the body’s immune response.

4. Put down the sugar

Sugar has devastating effects on the immune system, and the fact that Americans consume an average of 2-3 pounds of sugar per person every year spells bad news come cold and flu season. Not only does sugar increase the production of hormones that suppress the immune system, refined sugar needs micro-nutrients to be metabolized. This requires your body to use stored vitamins and minerals, further harming your defenses. Instead of eating high-sugar foods, try eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables (see the next tip).

5. Eat your fruits and veggies – and protein, too!

Although it doesn’t boil down to just one or two foods, the nutrients and other compounds found in your daily diet impact your immune system.

Make sure you obey your mother and eat your fruits and vegetables every day. Vitamin C, found in foods like strawberries, bell peppers, broccoli, and citrus, helps immune system cells function efficiently. Vitamin A helps keep tissues in the mouth, intestines and respiratory tract healthy, and is found in sweet potatoes, spinach, carrots and cantaloupe. Remember that eating the actual fruit or veggie is better than popping single-vitamin supplements since it’s likely that all the components in the food interact to offer protection.

And, make sure you get plenty of protein. Eating too little protein can weaken your immune system. Protein-rich foods supply the amino acids you need to build essential proteins in the body, including antibodies. Meats such as beef and pork also contain zinc, a mineral that your body uses to make T-cells.

6. Get rest and sleep

This can be difficult for the fire and EMS personnel, especially when the tones go off numerous times throughout the night. It is important to get as much sleep as possible, especially on those days away from the firehouse. Studies have found that getting enough sleep is essential for healthy immune function and that insufficient sleep or poor sleep quality is associated with lowered immune function. Ultimately you want to get at least seven to eight hours each night. There is hope for those of us that can’t sleep through the night; recent research shows that napping can boost health and the immune system.

Stay fit for duty

For a bonus, add chicken soup, Mom and a good laugh. I know that these things aren't backed by research, but chicken soup warms the spirit, TLC from Mom is always helpful, and laughing can’t hurt.

“A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor's book.” – Irish Proverb

Follow these tips to boost your immune system and to help you stay fit for duty. Stay consistent, and make sure to take care of yourself so you can take care of others.

Stay safe and healthy!

This article is reprinted with the permission of Aaron Zamzow/Fire Rescue Fitness.

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