If the coronavirus pandemic has taught us anything it’s the importance of taking preventative measures to limit the germs we spread to others. We’ve become accustomed to face masks, social distancing and staying home when we're poorly. These are all effective measures but there are some additional things you can do to prevent upper respiratory tract infections striking this winter.
In a normal year the CDC estimates every adult suffers from two or three colds, with mild symptoms such as coughing, sneezing and sore throats, and more severe ones such as difficulty breathing and body aches.
Interestingly, studies show that number is actually higher for athletes. Sounds counterintuitive, right? Surely the fittest, healthiest people in society should get fewer colds than eveyrone else?
Read on to discover why athletes are at a higher risk of upper respiratory tract infections and discover 5 ways you can prevent upper respiratory tract infections.
What are upper respiratory tract infections?
Without getting too technical, upper respiratory tract infections are when viruses or bacteria enter your body through your nose or mouth. Your upper respiratory tract are the entry points for breathing, while your lower respiratory tract are areas such as the windpipe and lungs.
We’ve all experienced an upper respiratory tract infection in our lives (the common cold got that name for a reason, after all).
Symptoms can include:
Blocked or runny nose
Pressure in your ears and face
Loss of taste and smell
Most upper respiratory tract infections are harmless and will go on their one accord, with no medical intervention necessary. But that doesn't stop them from being uncomfortable, annoying and preventing you from performing at your peak.
Why are athletes more susceptible to upper respiratory tract infections?
When we go from moderate to very high levels of physical intensity our risk of infection rises significantly. That's because in some cases frequent, intense exercise can impact the immune system with effects including: increased number of immune cells with decreased number of B and T cells in the blood, impaired white blood cell function, decreased ability to kill harmful bacteria, diminished antibody levels.
Specialist sport and exercise medicine physician at the Australasian College of Sport and Exercise Physicians, Dr Brett Frenkiel, explains: 'The brief period of immunosuppression after acute intense physical activity results in an immunological “open window” whereby a sports person may be more susceptible to infection.'
This is referred to as the J-model. Initially a moderate amount of exercise reduces your susceptibility to infection. But once an athlete begins high-intensity exercise then the immunological “window” opens and they are more susceptible.
And it's not just limited to elite athletes and professional sportspeople. When it comes to amateur athletes, the majority of medical issues aren't strains or injuries, but upper respiratory symptoms.
5 ways to prevent upper respiratory tract infections
1. Prioritise recovery A smart recovery strategy is just as important as time spent training. In a study on sports and infections in the journal Injury and Health Risk Management in Sports, researcher Dr Helena Herrero says: 'Infectious diseases can be prolonged or aggravated by continuing physical activity and athletes also risk having other acute or chronic organ manifestations such as bronchitis or pneumonia, myocarditis, pericarditis, and other secondary complications, for this reason exercise should not be allowed during convalescence and recovery.'
As a general rule of thumb, it's sensible to leave at least 48 hours between intense training sessions. This gives your body time to repair and rejuvenate. And while it might seem counterintuitive to train less, leaving adequate rest between sessions also reduces your risk of injury and makes it easier to put in maximum effort for every minute you are training, making it an excellent strategy for long-term success. If you really can't wait 48hrs to train again, ensure you focus on different muscle groups and types of movement. You should also take your pulse before getting started, if it's elevated by around 10bpm, skip training entirely because your body needs more time to recover. Want more training tips? Here are 24 evidence-based workout hacks.
2. Reduce the risks associated with travelling Recent research in the Journal for Clinical Infectious Diseases found, 'respiratory tract infections are the second most common cause of illness in travellers and of fever in returned travellers.' With understandably heightened infection rates during flu season (between December and February) in the northern hemisphere.
Thankfully, there are some easy things you can do to reduce the risks associated with travel and help avoid coming back with an upper respiratory tract infection.
3. Be hygienic It may sound obvious but maintaining high hygiene standards is one of the best ways to stave off upper respiratory tract infections. Washing after physical exercise and good hand hygiene will help fight fungal and viral skin infections picked up during contact sport, on top of cleansing you of viral bugs.
Even simple soap and water is enough to wash away harmful bugs, which means your immune system doesn’t have to deal with them. It's equally important to wash your training gear soon after exercise as sweaty clothing can is a prefect breeding round for bacteria.
4. Train outdoors Airborne viruses and bacteria – the ones you’re most likely to encounter in your upper tract – are spread more easily indoors. Because of that, many gyms moved their high-intensity workout classes outdoors during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
And if you can do exercise outdoors compared to indoors, then do! Air circulation indoors is much worse than outside and, as the American Lung Organisation states, 'crowded conditions with poor air circulation can promote the spread of coughs, colds, influenza, tuberculosis.'
5. Sleep Quality sleep is vital for a strong immune system. This article by sleep expert Dr Jason Ellis explains why. While this article by performance sleep coach Nick Littlehales reveals the techniques he uses with elite sports teams such as Team GB, British Cycling, Manchester United and Liverpool FC, which you can adopt to improve your own sleep quality.
So, there you have it. Upper respiratory tract infections are part and parcel of winter and intense exercise has the potential to make you even more susceptible to them, but simple preventative measures give your body the best chance of fighting them off.
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