Tips to stay healthy during the Covid-19 pandemic

My grandmother, at 93, is mobile and mentally alert. Except for a kidney problem about five years ago, she’s in relatively good health. Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, she has been taking extra precautions to avoid getting infected.

Aware that older people are more vulnerable to the virus, she is hyper vigilant about not interacting with outsiders; she isn’t even stepping out of the house to take a walk in the compound and the garden – something she enjoys immensely. For now, she doesn’t hug or touch anyone in the house.

But I’m glad she’s being extra cautious as the data reads like a horror story for someone of her age. The average age of those who died in Italy due to Covid-19 was 79.5, while 80% of those who died in the US due to Covid-19 were 65 and older.

This is largely because being older is a strong predictor of having ailments such as diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure, which impair the immune system and make it especially vulnerable to Covid-19.

How can we best protect our older loved ones and ourselves now that it looks like Covid-19 is not going away anytime soon? Even after the movement control order is lifted, the danger of infection will be present and there’s a good chance that many of us will be infected at some point in the near future

In addition to good general advice such as keeping a safe distance from our elders even if they’re living in the same house as us and following the health ministry’s guidelines, here are some tips you can follow after consulting your doctor:

Vitamin D to the rescue

Dr David Sinclair, a Harvard geneticist, says Vitamin D helps fight the disease, adding: “Low Vitamin D occurs in 90% of patients with acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), a common feature of advanced Covid-19 and is associated with longer time on ventilation.”

He’s not alone. According to an article published in the Irish Medical Journal, Vitamin D supplements may reduce the chances of getting an infection or reduce the severity of it.

Being in Malaysia, we can easily encourage the production of Vitamin D in the skin by exposing ourselves to sunlight for 10-15 minutes a day, without the need for supplements. We can just soak the sunlight from our lawn or balcony.

Keep it humid

According to Dr Sinclair, too, humidity plays a pivotal role in our susceptibility to Covid-19 as dry air “destroys the mucus lining of our airways so viruses can gain access”. He adds: “Animal and human studies show that 50% relative humidity is optimal to maintain our airways and protect from viruses. Low humidity (20-35%) greatly increases rates of infection.”

Being in Malaysia, you might think this is a non-factor as our relative humidity levels fluctuate between 50% and 90%. However, being in a closed, air-conditioned environment significantly reduces humidity levels.

To ensure humidity levels are optimal, you can purchase a cheap, sub-RM20 temperature and humidity meter online to check if your indoor environment is above the 50% relative humidity level. If it isn’t, try to minimise your time in a low-humidity environment or just switch on the fan instead of the air conditioner.

Use a pulse oximeter

There’s something spooky happening to many Covid-19 patients. Besides exhibiting some typical symptoms such as coughing, running a slight fever, and having mild breathing difficulty, many seem mostly fine and functional. This makes them believe that medical attention is unnecessary.

However, this can be a fatal mistake as they may be suffering from Covid pneumonia which causes something called “silent hypoxia”. Writing in the New York Times, Dr Richard Levitan, who has 30 years of experience in the field, says: “Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs in which the air sacs fill with fluid or pus. Normally, patients develop chest discomfort, pain with breathing and other breathing problems.

“But when Covid pneumonia first strikes, patients don’t feel short of breath, even as their oxygen levels fall. And by the time they do, they have alarmingly low oxygen levels and moderate-to-severe pneumonia (as seen on chest X-rays). Normal oxygen saturation for most persons at sea level is 94% to 100%; Covid pneumonia patients I saw had oxygen saturations as low as 50%.

“To my amazement, most patients I saw said they had been sick for a week or so with fever, cough, upset stomach and fatigue, but they only became short of breath the day they came to the hospital. Their pneumonia had clearly been going on for days, but by the time they felt they had to go to the hospital, they were often already in critical condition.”

He recommends the use of a pulse oximeter, a simple medical device that can be purchased over the counter and which costs less than RM100. It goes over the fingertip and indicates the oxygen saturation and pulse rate.

This could alert us to low levels of oxygen so that we can seek early treatment. Having said that, it is best to consult with a doctor first, especially when using it or get a reading from a doctor to ensure accuracy.

Strengthen your lungs

That’s right, it’s time to get our body moving! I know it can be difficult since we’re all stuck at home but there are a host of home exercises we can do to increase our lung capacity and keep it in peak condition.

This is especially important since Covid-19 is a disease that debilitates us by attacking our lungs. According to Revathi Murugappan, a certified Malaysian fitness trainer, “although it’s not easy to increase your lung capacity overnight, exercising regularly can help you to slowly and steadily take in more oxygen”.

A great way of achieving this is by doing interval training. She says: “An example of interval training you can do at home is to walk very briskly up and down the stairs (don’t touch the railings) or around the house for a minute, then slow down your pace for two minutes to catch your breath and recover. Do a few sets of this. You can also do high-knee runs or jumping jacks for a minute before doing gentle lunges for two minutes”.

And for the smokers out there, there isn’t a better time to quit. Reports show that smokers who get Covid-19 tend to have more severe infections.

The New England Journal of Medicine, for instance, published a study of 1,000 people in China which found that being a smoker almost tripled a person’s chances of being admitted to an ICU, needing a ventilator or dying.

But let’s say you have already been infected. What do you do? In addition to immediately seeking medical attention and following the instructions of your doctor, there is a simple breathing exercise you could do that both bestselling author JK Rowling and CNN anchor Chris Cuomo swear by.

It was popularised by Dr Sarfaraz Munshi from Queen’s Hospital in London and it goes like this:

  • Take a deep breath; hold it for five seconds and release. Repeat this five times. Then, take a sixth deep breath and at the end of it, cough strongly while covering your mouth. This entire process is one cycle. Repeat this twice.

Munshi then advises patients to lie on their stomach on a bed and take slightly deeper breaths than usual for the next 10 minutes. He adds: “The majority of your lung is on your back, not on your front. So by lying on your back, you’re closing off more of the smaller airways and this is not good during the period of infection.”

However, some have questioned the effectiveness of this technique so it’s best performed on the approval of your doctor.

Although none of the tips above are foolproof, they could provide some help as we face-off against the biggest threat to us, our loved ones and humanity now.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.

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