Healthy family

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The cold days of winter bring most of us indoors for the year � and then the sniffles start up. Symptoms like sneezing, congestion, and sore throat are common during the winter months. These unpleasant symptoms can be evidence of a winter cold, but they can also mean indoor allergies. What are the causes of these winter ailments, and how can they be identified (and treated)?

Winter weather can indirectly cause both colds and indoor allergies. Colds increase in winter because people spend more time inside, confined to small spaces where viruses and germs can be easily passed around. Also, the viruses which cause colds thrive in low-humidity environments, which are typically found in the cold dry months of winter. Low humidity, combined with air blowing from indoor heating systems, causes drying of the nasal passages, which can increase susceptibility to infection.

With indoor allergies, it's a similar story. Indoor allergies are caused by dust, which contains a wide variety of allergy-causing particles like animal dander, mold spores, pollen, dust mites and dust mite waste. Spending more time indoors means increased exposure to these allergens. Plus, indoor heating systems circulate air through the house, knocking loose many allergy causing particles on carpets, furniture, and dusty shelves. Then, these allergens are circulated through your home, right along with the warm cozy air.

Colds and allergies also show themselves in very similar ways, making it difficult to tell them apart. Symptoms of colds include congestion, stuffy nose, swelling of sinuses, sneezing, scratchy sore throat, headaches, aches and pains, fever, and a cough. Allergy symptoms include stuffed or runny nose, sneezing, wheezing, sore throat, watery and itchy eyes, and sometimes headaches. The main difference between cold and allergy symptoms is that colds usually come with body aches and pains and possibly a low-grade fever, while allergies do not. In addition, colds usually last 7-10 days, while allergies will persist as long as the exposure to the offending allergen continues. If you have cold-like symptoms which persist for more than two weeks, it's a good guess that you're dealing with an allergy, not a cold.

Complicating matters, frequent colds may in fact result from allergies. Your body responds to tiny allergens by producing mucus, in an attempt to expel them. However, nasal mucus is also a breeding ground for viruses and bacteria, which can cause colds and sinus infections. Treating allergies will help prevent these, which is why it's a good idea to identify allergies early and treat them accordingly.

It's important to distinguish between colds and allergies, in order to give appropriate treatment. Cold viruses thrive in low humidity, and nasal dryness can lead to increased susceptibility to colds, so running a humidifier in cold dry winter months may be helpful. However, dust mites thrive on high humidity, so if you're suffering from indoor allergies, the low humidity is your ally. And while rest and plenty of fluids may cure a cold, allergies will persist as long as exposure continues.

To treat and prevent indoor allergies:

Visit an allergy doctor who can help you identify the offending indoor allergens

Maintain low indoor humidity to kill dust mites and mold

Vacuum using a HEPA filtered vacuum and run a HEPA air purifier to remove airborne allergens

Encase mattress, pillows, and bedding in allergen-barrier encasings to protect from dust mite allergies

Dust and clean frequently

To treat and prevent winter colds:

Wash your hands frequently and disinfect surfaces

Get plenty of exercise and rest

Eat nutritiously, with lots of fruits and vegetables

Avoid alcohol, tobacco, and excess stress

Relieve cold symptoms with nasal decongestants and cough suppressants

When treating a cold, remember that medicines may relieve symptoms, but they will not cure the cold. Only giving your body the proper care it needs � rest, proper nutrition, and plenty of fluids � will cure the cold. And with allergies, the best way to treat allergy symptoms is to remove the offending allergens from the environment.

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It may be hard for you to believe in this morbidly obese country that we live in but there do exist people who have trouble gaining weight and need help to do it. This is true in famine ravaged countries in say Africa for obvious reasons but it is less intuitive in this country where there is no shortage of calorie rich food. So who are these people who want/need to gain weight?

Well there are at least three major groups of people in America that need help to gain weight. These are athletes, persons with iatrogenic and disease-caused cachexia, people, who are unable to feed themselves correctly, and lastly people whose bodies are using calories at a higher rate than "normal" people and not counting athletes. So lets take a few minutes to at least consider these groups of people.

First and perhaps most obvious are athletes who have trouble gaining weight on a normal diet because they are burning off as much or more calories than they are taking in. Athletes, especially those at the elite level, often consume ungodly amounts of food just to supply their bodies with enough fuel to work at supernormal levels of physical activity and support fantastically high rates of metabolism. Second are those with diseases that cause a loss of appetite such as anorexia for an obvious one or mental illness or cancer with associated cachexia that are maybe less obvious. In the case of anorexia nervosa there needs to be cognitive behavioral therapy that changes the basic structure of thought for these people that makes them think that they are fat. For mental illness a mixture of both behavior therapy and drugs that stimulate the appetite and helps the person want to consume enough calories to gain weight. For cancer patients these appetite stimulating drugs are really the solution if they work.

The group that is unable to feed themselves is the third group to discuss and these are mainly people at the extremes of age. It is obvious that babies need to be fed in order for them to gain weight but it is perhaps less obvious in the elderly who often survive on what is known as a "tea-and-toast" diet because they either do not possess the physical energy or they no longer have the mental faculty to provide themselves with a good nutrition.

The last group are those that have a high metabolic rate but aren't athletes with lots of physical activity. The best example of this are people whose bodies are fighting serious illness, most commonly infection. The immune system needs lots of energy so it is important to keep these patients well fed so that they can at least maintain if not gain weight.