Saturday, October 29, 2011

It's That Time of Year Again!

Yep, the time when everyone goes bonkers with fear that they might catch a cold or the flu. And there's some pretty strange and outright bad advice going around, so I thought it might be good to post some antidotal common-sense type advice that will (we hope) keep us well.

Note that I am not a doctor or a nurse, just a regular human being with a few brains in her head who reads a lot. This advice is not meant to counter anything a trained health-care provider says--if we conflict, go with the advice of the person who's trained and paid.

But I doubt very much if any health care provider will take issue with anything I have to say here, so here goes:

1) Be aware and accepting of the fact that as a human being, made of flesh, you are going to get sick at some point. Don't panic, as long as you're not dead! Colds and most flus aren't death sentences any more--they're usually no more than minor inconveniences.

2) You'll get over the inevitable faster if you admit it and take care of yourself while you're sick. If you're sick, stay home!!!! Don't go to work because you feel "kind of okay," wait until you feel well. Don't send kids to school with "just a cold." First off, you will get better faster if you're not wearing yourself out while you're sick. Second, you'll bless everyone else by keeping your germs at home.

3) The two lists I've seen about flu prevention both miss my number one, most important precaution.

GET A FLU SHOT!!!! In Ontario, they're free and available at your doctor's office now. If you don't have a family doctor, there are clinics just about everywhere--call your local health unit on Monday ('cause today's Saturday and they're probably closed). The year after I go the flu for real (and not "stomach" flu, but real, honest-to-goodness influenza), I started getting the shots every year. I haven't been sick with the flu since, and even my incidence of colds has gone down.

If it's not covered by provincial health insurance (because you live somewhere else), investigate how much it costs. Being sick with influenza can keep you off work for a week or more, and make you feel sluggish for even longer. Is it less than a week's pay to get the shot? Then get it...

What are you waiting for???

3) One of the lists I read started with "Demand (their word, not mine) that any visitors or guests who enter your home wash their hands right away."

Um, right. NOT!

Now, washing hands is a good thing, but it's YOUR hands you need to wash if you want to avoid germs, because it's (hopefully) YOUR hands that will be going near your mouth and face and food. Unless your guests are holding your newborn (in which case I'd say, "If you want to hold the baby, you can wash your hands in the bathroom. I've set out fresh guest towels just for you."), I wouldn't worry about their hands, except to invite them to use the washroom before a meal. (Once again, suggest, don't demand. "I've set out some guest towels in the bathroom, if you'd like to wash your hands before we eat." Then they'll seem like complete boors if they don't wash, and you haven't demanded a single thing, or even made them feel uncomfortable.)

But like I said, it's YOUR hands you really need to worry about.

Wash after you use the toilet, before you eat, and before and during food preparation. Before and after visiting someone in the hospital, visiting a doctor, etc. Use common sense. Washing your hands CAN get excessive, but most people don't go nearly that far, or even nearly far enough.

Use soap and water. A study I read done by a soap company looked at the difference in health outcomes in a third world country after distribution of different types of soap. The control group was not given any soap. One-half of the remainder was given plain, ordinary soap with instructions on how and when to wash. The other half was given antibacterial soap, again with instructions.

Both soap-using groups had better disease outcomes than the control group. But there was NO DIFFERENCE between the two different types of soap. What matters, therefore, is not that the soap has antibacterial agents in it, but that you use it.

4) Get enough sleep. Once again, numerous studies show that adult North Americans don't get anywhere near enough sleep. Six to eight hours minimum, folks. It will help you recharge your immune system. It will keep you alert so you don't have as many accidents. And it will keep you from getting overly grumpy, which could keep you out of prison...

Okay, so maybe not that last, but you get the idea. The proper amount of sleep is important in maintaining your overall health.

5) Eat healthy amounts of healthy foods, especially fruits and vegetables. Forget about processed "fruit-flavoured" snacks, and go for an apple. A smoothie is great, a real banana is even better. Carrots and peas and beans and salads...

I'll stop now. I'm getting hungry.

I've seen plenty written about how important vitamins and trace minerals are for your heath, but I've never read a study (which doesn't mean there aren't any, just that I haven't read them) that shows that a daily pill will keep you healthy. Vitamin pills can't replace real vitamins, direct from the source, IMO. And they don't taste nearly as good, either.

6) Stay hydrated. Drink enough water. Water, folks. Not fire-water, or cola, or tea or coffee. Just plain water.

And use a re-usable water bottle when you do it (or a glass), so that we can keep our environment healthy, too.

7) Stay out of places with lots of sick people if you possibly can. Some of the advice on the lists I've read tell you to stay out of places like grocery stores as much as you can, but that's just silly. Sick people don't generally go to the grocery store, they go to the hospital and the doctor's office. So unless you really need to go, stay out of those two places.

DO NOT go to the emergency room for a simple head cold. One, it wastes taxpayers' money. Two, it wastes your time, because you'll be put way, way down on the triage list, after the person with the sprained baby toe, and definitely after the guy with the stab wound, and the woman in labour and all the other fun people you'll get to meet. Don't go there just to pass the time or read a book, either. (I've never done this, but apparently a few people do.)

Read your book in the library, if you must get out of the house.

If you're sick with non-life-threatening illness (you can breathe okay, you can talk, you're not terribly disoriented, and you have no or a low-grade fever) try PHONING your doctor for advice first. Wrap yourself in a blanket, drink lots of water, have some chicken soup, and read a good book or watch an old movie. You'll be well in a day or two.

8) Finally, be a little wary of zapping your cold or flu with too many OTC medications. First, read the instructions carefully. I have some meds that say it's okay to take them every four hours, but when you read further, you find out you can't take more than three doses per day.

Second, don't take them so you will feel "well enough to go to work." Meds DO NOT make the illness go away, they just disguise it. Your body is still sick and it still needs the time to heal. You may actually be sick longer than otherwise if you take meds and continue with your daily routine, heedless of your body's real needs. Second, you're still contagious, so other people can still get sick from you, no matter how good you're feeling.

Stay home, take time to get well... (Wait. I think I've said that before.)

Seriously. I think a huge part of our problem with infectious diseases is our insistence that we are machines who can "bash on regardless." We're not machines, we're living organisms, and we'll live longer, healthier lives if we respect the difference.

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