By Mary O’Brien, M.D.
It’s that time of the year again. It’s that awful season when nearly every third person you encounter looks and feels miserable. Headache, fever, cough, congestion, myalgia, and malaise signal flu season is in full force. Health officials are already proclaiming this (2017-18) the worst flu outbreak in over a decade. Considering the dreadful natural disasters of 2017 and record-breaking cold temperatures across two-thirds of the nation, we shouldn’t be surprised. Every year flu outbreaks spike shortly after the holidays, and the travel, stress, sleep deprivation, and crowds associated with the holidays.
A few time-tested, common sense measures may help protect you, your loved ones, colleagues, and patients:
- Wash your hands. Wash your hands. Wash your hands — thoroughly and often. Hot, soapy water is best, but hand sanitizers and disinfectant wipes come in handy at the grocery store or in the car.
- Avoid touching your face, especially around your eyes, nose, and mouth. These areas can serve as an entrance ramp for viruses. Try to resist the temptation.
- Increase your fluid intake. Bitter cold temperatures combined with heat from furnaces and fireplaces increase insensible fluid losses (fluid lost from skin and breathing). The resulting dry mucus membranes are not only uncomfortable, but they’re more vulnerable to viral penetration. Water is best here.
- Get more sleep than you think you need. A single night of inadequate sleep can compromise lymphocyte numbers and function. Give your immune system the restorative time it needs to protect you.
- Don’t overextend yourself. Most folks are already tired from the holidays. Give yourself some downtime before you have no choice in the matter.
- Avoid crowds like the plague. Contagion is partly a numbers game. No one has to go to a crowded movie theater or restaurant. Stay home and clean out a closet.
- Consider getting a flu shot now. So far this year (2018), the efficacy rating is not good. But, some protection is better than none. Remember, antibody production will take about two weeks after the shot.
And — finally — if you do get the flu, please stay home. There is nothing noble or heroic about spreading influenza to colleagues and patients.
In the meantime, stay warm and well. I have to go wash my hands now.