Wonderland though a midwest holiday season may be, we hearty northerners typically find a cesspool awaiting us come the early winter months. The common cold and flu viruses plague our office breakrooms and meeting spaces, our children's daycares and schools, shopping malls, grocery stores, and airports. And it's no wonder it spreads like wildfire, as we traipse to and from work, child pickup, Nana and Grandpa's for Thanksgiving, shopping for gifts, holiday work parties, a trip to your sister-in-law's up north for Christmas, hosting a New Year's bash... Really, the to-do list doesn't seem to end this time of year.
As we are proximally closer to one another during these chilly winter months due to being cooped up indoors, the risks rise for spreading disease. Additionally, there is less humidity in winter air, and dry nasal passages are inherently more vulnerable to catching a virus. Besides that, kids are excellent vectors for disease, and with school in session, well, that's really the third strike for our immune systems.
Johns Hopkins University estimates that there are 200 viruses that comprise what we commonly refer to as "a cold" or upper respiratory infection (URI). And while you technically can't catch the same cold twice as we develop immunity fending them off, these viruses tend to mutate, leaving us vulnerable to new strains of the same cold virus. Worst of all, it's been reported that flu viruses can live outside the body in some circumstances for up to 48 hours, and scarier yet, avian influenza was found to survive on surfaces for up to 6 days.
That's uplifting, isn't it?
As the viruses of winter months are simply a fact of life, albeit a dour one, we thus turn our attention to prevention, and ultimately, relief.
Protecting Yourself and Others from Illness
- Wash those hands! It's been said a million times, but the importance of proper hand washing can never be overstated. When we touch our noses, eyes, and mouths unconsciously, we bring germs to and from our faces. And we do it. A lot. Even in healthy people, that's a little gross. The CDC reports that hand washing can reduce the spread of URIs in the general population by 16-21%. You could be one of those people! Wash for 20 seconds, halfway up your forearms. Your nose, throat, and sinuses will thank you later.
- Disinfect to protect. By using even a mild detergent to disinfect frequently touched surfaces (doorknobs, toys, countertops, drawer handles, faucet handles), you reduce the risk that you, your children, and others entering your space may spread illness.
- Sick? Stay home. As important as it is to try to prevent yourself from getting sick, equally important is preventing your illness from spreading to others. Immunocompromised people such as young children, the elderly, and people with some chronic illnesses, still have to grocery shop, gas up their car, and go to work or daycare. Their safety depends on herd immunity and good hygiene. If it is at all possible to avoid public spaces when you're sick, please do.
- Get the flu shot. Vaccines these days tend to be a hot-button topic, and the efficacy of the flu shot varies from year to year. And while getting the flu shot doesn't necessarily mean you won't get the flu, as it is generally created using previous strains of the virus, it can help blunt the duration of the flu if you do get it. Best practice is to get one yearly, in part to help with that aforementioned herd immunity.
- Observe personal space. This means not only giving a wide berth to those proximal to you that you know to be sick, but also moving away and covering your own mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze. Best practice is to use your elbow over your face, but if that can't be accomplished, circle back around to hand washing or using a hand sanitizer immediately after covering your mouth.
Much Needed Relief
- Push those fluids and nap like a champ. Staying hydrated and rested will conserve the energy your body needs to fight off the infection. Stick with water, ice chips, and decaf teas with honey or lemon. Avoid alcohol, caffiene, and sugary drinks like juice and soda.
- Use over-the-counter medications as directed. Over-the-counter (OTC) medications such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and naproxen (shameless plug for our pain relief selection here) can relieve some of the worst symptoms so you can go about your daily life. They can truly be a godsend when you're sick. While they can help cope with symptoms, OTCs cannot shorten the duration of a cold. They may even mask the symptoms to the point where you overdo it, and extend the life of your cold or flu. Always use as directed, and continue to take it easy until all symptoms are gone. Note that antibiotics are for bacterial infections only, and their mechanism for action does not work on viruses. Improper use of antibiotics can cause antibiotic resistant bacteria to grow.
- Moisten your air. Using a cool-mist humidifier can help loosen mucous and ease the pain of a dry, scratchy throat. This is particularly helpful with small children, as they aren't as able to clear their nasal passages and have limited selections for OTCs.