Question:

What's your best tip to prevent colds and other infections during the winter?

Answer: My single best tip to prevent getting sick during the winter months is to keep your nasal lining and upper respiratory tract moist through proper humidification of your home.

It's no coincidence that more colds, more flu, more sinus infections, and more pneumonia occur during the dry winter months. Your first line of defense against those infections is healthy and intact nasal and upper airway linings. These are your protective barriers against germs.

They're mostly airborne or spread by germ-covered hands. While good hand-washing and covering the mouth when coughing helps to avoid spreading germs, a breakdown in your nasal lining is a breakdown in your defense system. When the air is dry in the winter and you turn on heat to dry it out even more, those tissues dry out, thin (exposing tiny blood vessels that cause nosebleeds), and develop small cracks that allow germs to penetrate. The walls, ceiling, and hardwood floors of your home also draw lots of moisture to further dry the air out. What's more, there are actually more viruses around during the winter than the summer.

If you have a whole house humidifier, make sure the humidity is adequate. If there's any static, your home is too dry. Ideally, place a humidifier in each bedroom and one in the main living area. Two allergy-friendly humidifiers I recommend are Bionaire's steam humidifier and Venta-Sonic's high output ultrasonic humidifier. Regardless of your choice, be sure to run your humidifier around the clock during the dry winter months.

Outside the home, use saltwater nasal sprays to keep your nasal tissue moist. Adequate hydration and rest are also important. Avoid putting Vaseline in your nose; it can get inhaled and cause lung damage.

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The risk may be small, but polio still exists

Q:

As a mother of infant twins, I would like to know why I need to subject my children to the pain and risk of polio vaccination when there haven't been any polio outbreaks in the United States in many years. Can't I tell the pediatrician to skip it?

A: I agree with you that the risk of your children contracting polio virus living here in the United States is very small, but the risk has not disappeared entirely. Did you know, for example, that in 2005 there were four confirmed cases of polio infections in unvaccinated children who were members of a small Amish community in Minnesota? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that the source was most likely contact with a person who had received the live attenuated oral polio vaccine in another country (discontinued here in 2000). None of the children developed paralytic polio, but it let us know that polio is still out there.

There are four countries where polio is still prevalent: Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, and Nigeria. Since 2005, imported polio virus has been reported in a long list of countries including Ethiopia, Somalia, Uganda, Indonesia, Chad, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Polio is just a plane ride away.

Americans travel to these areas with their families; people from all over the world visit the United States and represent a potential source of exposure to polio and a host of other illnesses not ordinarily seen in the States. Until polio is eradicated like smallpox, we must not let down our guard.

Mitchell Hecht specializes in internal medicine. Send questions to him at: "Ask Dr. H," Box 767787, Atlanta, Ga. 30076. Due to the large volume of mail received, personal replies are not possible.