Welcome to cold and flu season, the time of year where not only do you have to drag yourself out of bed while it’s dark and foreboding outside, but you also have to sit in an office listening to a chorus of coughing and sneezing all day long. It’s only a matter of time until you catch that bug making its way from one end of your workplace to the other. But luckily, whether or not you get sick doesn’t have to be left completely up to chance. There are some things you can do to help keep you from suffering the same snotty fate as your co-workers—though, you can never be 100 percent in the clear.
First, you need to accept the reality of the situation: Germs spread like wildfire in an office or other common space. “When people sneeze, cough or even talk, they are spreading little droplets that can contain influenza and other viruses,” Romney M. Humphries, Ph.D., section chief of clinical microbiology and an assistant professor in the department of pathology and laboratory medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, tells SELF. These droplets become airborne and then settle on surfaces. Depending on what virus or bacteria a person has, you may not even need to interact with them to catch their germs in a shared space. Some bacteria and viruses, like the flu, for example, can survive on hard surfaces for at least a day, Humphries says. “Other viruses and bacteria don’t do well once they are outside the human body, and die quickly in the environment.”
Instead of accepting that you’ll just become sick and miserable, here are six things you can do to avoid getting sick when everyone you know is.
1. Wash your hands more.
“This is the best way to remove germs, avoid getting sick, and prevent spread of germs to others,” Humphries says. (Follow these steps to make sure you’re doing it effectively.) The goal is to kill any germs you touch before they make their way to your mucous membranes—eyes and nose—where they can set up shop and make you ill. If you can’t get up and wash your hands easily throughout the day, “using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer is a good alternative,” says Humphries.
2. Avoid touching your face.
Specifically, your eyes and nose. Touching germs and then these areas gives said germs easy access into your body. So wash those hands and avoid the temptation to touch to make it harder for them to find an entry point.
3. Wipe down your work surface.
“This will help prevent the buildup of germs and reduce the chances of you getting exposed,” Humphries explains. Use a disinfecting wipe to clean off your workspace twice a day in the middle of flu season.
4. Get vaccinated.
This only helps with the flu, not a cold or other random viruses. But the flu is kind of a big deal. “This is the easiest, most effective way to protect yourself against getting sick,” Humphries says. “Flu vaccines cause your body to make antibodies against the flu. It’s important to get vaccinated annually, because the flu viruses change a lot year-to-year, and last year’s vaccine will not protect you.” It’s still possible to get the flu if you’ve been vaccinated, but it’s often much milder.
5. Get more sleep.
Having a healthy immune system that helps your body fight off invading germs is another important way to stay healthy. “In general, trying to live a healthy lifestyle can improve your immune system and help prevent you from getting sick,” Humphries says. One important part of that is getting enough sleep. “The number one thing you could be doing is getting enough sleep,” Anthony Lyon, M.D., medical director of The Ash Center in NYC, tells SELF. When you don’t prioritize sleep and push yourself too hard, your body is less prepared to fight back against bacteria and viruses, and you get sick more easily. If you’re a restless sleeper or have trouble winding down at night, Lyon suggests practicing deep-breathing meditation.
6. And remember that healthy habits = healthy life.
Eating healthy and exercising regularly can also have a positive impact on your immune system and put you in the best position possible to stay healthy. So when everyone around you is ill, let that be a reminder to keep up with your fitness routine (yes, even when it’s cold outside) and fueling your body for the good fight. Don’t overdo it, though. Pushing yourself too hard can actually run down your immune system and make you more susceptible—so no two-a-days, OK?
Even if you do all of these things, chances are you’re not going to make it through these months completely unscathed. Humphries points out that this is especially true if you have kids. If and when you do get sick, focus on taking care of yourself (read: lots of sleep and tea) and don’t be afraid to use your sick days if you have them. “Taking the time off to get better will help you get better sooner and miss less work in the long run,” says Humphries.
- Am I Too Sick or Contagious to Go to Work?
- Medical myth busting: Separating fact from fiction about colds and flu
- 6 Easy Ways to Make Everyone Around You Sick
- How to never get ill
- You Really Can Tell Someone’s Sick Just By Looking at Them
- Toxic! Household Products You Didn’t Know Were Poisons
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- 2. Glow sticks
- 3. Hand sanitizer
- 4. Philodendrons
- 5. Nicotine gum and liquid nicotine
- 6. Energy drinks
- Here’s what to say—and not say
- ‘Quarantine the Kids!’ and Other Helpful Hacks to Keep Everyone in the House from Getting Sick
- Should germs make you squirm?
- 7 ways to stay sanitary, strong, and safe
Am I Too Sick or Contagious to Go to Work?
Your doctor may recommend several treatments for your illness. It’s important to consider when these treatments may be helpful and their potential side effects.
The flu is a viral infection caused by the influenza virus that targets your head and chest.
You’ll have symptoms such as a cough, sore throat, and runny nose. Your body will hurt, you’ll be tired, and you might run a fever over 100°F (37.8°C). People often feel the achiness and fatigue first, before their respiratory symptoms develop.
Since they kill bacteria rather than viruses, antibiotics won’t treat the flu. Rest, fluids, and over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) may help you manage your symptoms.
To relieve your symptoms faster, your doctor may prescribe an antiviral drug such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu), peramivir (Rapivab), zanamivir (Relenza), or baloxavir (Xofluza). For the medication to work, it’s best to start taking it within 48 hours of your symptoms starting.
You should consider taking antiviral drugs even after 48 hours if you’re in regular contact with people who are at high risk, including
- young children
- people over the age of 65
- women who are pregnant or less than two weeks postpartum
- people with weakened immune systems from other medical conditions
Also, antiviral drugs can cause side effects such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Relenza is an inhaled medication, so you shouldn’t use it if you have asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
If you’re at high risk for flu complications because you’re over age 65, you have a chronic health condition, or you’re pregnant, let your doctor know if you get the flu. Also, call your doctor right away if you have any of the more serious flu symptoms, such as trouble breathing or dizziness.
Common colds are caused by many different viruses. These viruses spread through the air, just like influenza.
When they make their way into your nose, eyes, or mouth, cold viruses cause symptoms such as:
- a runny or stuffy nose
- watery eyes
- sore throat
- occasional cough
You might get a low-grade fever, too.
Treat your cold by taking it easy. Drink water and other non-caffeinated fluids and get as much rest as you can.
You can also take an OTC cold remedy. Some of these drugs come in multi-symptom (cold, cough, fever) varieties. Be careful not to treat symptoms you don’t have. You could end up with side effects you don’t expect — or want.
Decongestant nasal sprays relieve congestion. However, if you use a certain type for more than three days, it could give you a rebound stuffed nose. Some of these drugs can also cause an increase in blood pressure or a rapid heartbeat.
If you have high blood pressure, an irregular heart rhythm, or heart disease, talk to your doctor before you use a decongestant. Antihistamines can also help clear up a stuffy nose, but older ones such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) can make you sleepy.
Colds are usually mild, but they can sometimes lead to complications such as bronchitis or pneumonia.
Shop for nasal decongestant sprays.
Medical myth busting: Separating fact from fiction about colds and flu
7. Hands are bad, right?
Washing your hands or using alcohol-based hand gel is a cornerstone of respiratory virus prevention. Your hands touch elevator buttons, public transport rails, all the different places you go on a daily basis, then you touch your face hundreds of times a day. I have a bottle of hand gel with me at all times. You can’t stop yourself all the time, but be more aware of whether your hands are clean before you start rubbing your eyes.
8. How far does avoiding touching bathroom doors get you?
Although it’s probably less critical for respiratory viruses, it is important to prevent the spread of other diseases such as Norovirus, a gastrointestinal virus that leads to diarrhea and vomiting and is aptly known as “Winter Vomiting Disease.” You never know whether the person before you washed their hands or not. If you ever watch anyone wash their hands, it can be quite cursory. Sometimes they don’t even use soap or take just three seconds. Whenever you can, when you’re washing your hands, use a paper towel to turn off the sink, open the door, and then toss the towel away. That’s the ideal.
9. How long should you wash your hands? I’ve heard you should sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” but I suspect I sing it too fast.
Try “Happy birthday to you.” Sing it twice. Most people rub two hands together and think they’re done. We miss our thumbs, our wrists, under rings and jewelry, under fingernails, the backs of our hands. There are multiple steps. There are videos out there that show you how to wash your hands. It’s the same with hand gel. Make sure you get enough hand gel to cover your hands.
10. What about facial masks? Do they help at all?
Although you often see people wearing a mask in public places to avoid getting the flu, it’s not clear that it provides a lot of benefit. We recommend that patients with active symptoms wear them in the clinic to prevent spreading respiratory droplets. But you have to wear them correctly. And their effectiveness is limited once they get wet from coughing, sneezing or the humidification in airways.
11. Why do people often get a cold after flying on a plane?
When you’re sitting in close proximity to others for 12 hours, you’re more likely to be exposed to respiratory droplets. It’s really limited to the seats around you, not the whole plane. I sat next to somebody with a cold, and I was as careful as I could be — washing my hands, using hand sanitizer. After a 10-hour flight I was sure I was going get a cold — and I did.
12. In what way is having kids like flying on a plane?
The majority of people get colds and flu from being in close proximity to someone with an active cold, who’s sneezing and coughing. That’s why with young kids in a family, the cold goes through the whole family. Also, kids are viral factories: They often have viral loads that are higher than adults. They often don’t cover their nose and mouth, don’t have good hand hygiene, they hang out together at daycare and school. They’re the starting and ending place for lots of respiratory viruses during the cold season. We see the season happening in kids first.
13. How can you tell if you’ve got a cold or the flu?
Runny nose, sore throat, fever, sneezing, cough and muscle pain are common symptoms seen in a whole host of viral infections. But influenza is different from a bad cold. It often includes a fever and a feeling of malaise or muscle pains. You feel really wiped out. If you are concerned, see your doctor for a quick test to see if you have flu or if it’s beneficial to get treated. Certainly, if you are a cancer patient, see your doctor even if you have minor symptoms.
14. What about the ‘stomach flu?’
That’s not influenza. Really young kids can get nausea and vomiting with influenza, but there are always respiratory symptoms. When you hear “stomach flu,” nausea and vomiting, think Norovirus. It is very contagious so oftentimes it will run through the whole family.
15. Any idea what kind of flu season it’s going to be this year?
Sporadic cases have been seen, but it is not really spreading dramatically in the U.S. yet. It usually starts on the East Coast and moves West. Getting your flu shot now is ideal because you need two weeks to develop a full immune response.
16. So it’s a good idea to get a flu vaccine?
It is the best way to protect yourself from getting the flu. It isn’t perfect but it can often cut your chances of getting influenza by about 50 percent (depending on the season). Unfortunately, we don’t have vaccines for other respiratory viruses. But I get my flu shot every year, as do all the physicians at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance — we all know how important getting the vaccine is to protecting our families, our friends and our patients. SCCA and Fred Hutch provide free flu vaccine for our staff. In addition, we provide vaccine for patients and give it free to family members and caregivers when they come with patients to the clinic.
17. What about the high-dose vaccine?
A high-dose flu vaccine has been shown in studies to provide better protection for people 65 years and older. I recommended it to my own parents — who both get vaccinated. The one down side is it only covers three strains of influenza while the normal vaccine covers four. Future studies should help us better understand whether high-dose vaccine is beneficial for cancer patients.
18. Why did the CDC stop recommending flu mist for children?
The flu mist, or live-attenuated flu vaccine, is a weakened form of the influenza virus that can be given through the nose. It was thought to work well in kids, but recent data suggests that it may not provide enough immune response to some strains of influenza. The CDC does not recommend it as an option for vaccination this year. The only option is the flu shot.
19. Can you get the flu from the flu vaccine?
Absolutely not. The vaccine has components of the inactivated virus, but it’s not the virus. Minor side effects can be a little aching or arm swelling, but it lasts a day or two at most. As one of the most utilized vaccines in the world, it has one of best safety profiles of anything we do in healthcare.
20. What about claims that vaccines are linked to autism?
This has been well studied and there are no links. We need to move away from blaming vaccines for a very serious illness when science has, again and again, shown this not to be the case. Unfortunately, many still believe this discredited link. As for Guillain-Barre syndrome (a rare neurologic illness), you are more likely to get it if you get the flu than if you get the vaccine. Vaccines are well studied and very safe. I get mine every year and so does everyone in my family.
21. Does drinking orange juice or taking vitamin C help prevent colds and flu? What about Airborne products or zinc?
There’s not great data. Is it vitamin C that provides the benefit or drinking lot of orange juice? Probably the liquids. Eating healthy foods and getting lots of rest are important, however.
22. Is there any treatment for a cold or flu?
If you have influenza, there’s Tamiflu, or oseltamivir . We don’t recommend them for everyone but we do suggest them for people with chronic health conditions, cancer or for a transplant patient at risk for complications. I prefer that you never need medications — get the vaccine instead. For most other respiratory viruses, there are no treatments, so prevention and limiting transmission are key.
23. Is there anything you can do to treat a cold?
The best things you can do are rest and get adequate fluids. Take it easy, don’t exert yourself. Cover your coughs and sneezing. And stay home so you limit exposing others to the infection.
24. What about chicken soup?
If nothing else, it provides a variety of nutritional benefits, a fair amount of liquids, and it can be very soothing to take something warm. I know I love it when I feel sick — along with ginger ale. It reminds me of when I was a kid. There are no downsides to it.
Have you been hit by a cold or flu this season? Tell us about in on Facebook.
6 Easy Ways to Make Everyone Around You Sick
“New, severe symptoms are a danger signal to oneself and to others, and that’s when people are most infectious,” says Dr. Hirsch.
2. Insist on shaking hands.
Do this instead: If you go to work sick, try to minimize the number of people — and things — that you touch, says Hirsch. “Take precautions — wash your hands like crazy while you’re at work, avoid close personal contact with others, and try not to sneeze in your hands, but instead into your elbow or a handkerchief,” Hirsch advises. “ be a little more conscious about touching other people, or touching what other people touch without washing your hands first.”
3. Don’t sleep enough.
Do this instead: Not practicing healthy sleep habits can lead to all kinds of health problems, including cardiovascular issues, lowered immune system response, glucose and insulin abnormalities, disruption of hormones that control appetite, and impaired cognitive function. In short, it can make you more prone to getting sick — and that includes colds and flu.
“When we’re under stress and don’t get enough sleep it weakens our immune system — it’s sacrificing biological renewal,” explains Hirsch. “A purpose of sleep is to handle low-grade infections that we’re keeping at bay to stop them from becoming problematic. When your stress hormones are increased, your immune system takes a bit of a hit and can leave you vulnerable to sickness.”
4. Forget to take your medications.
Do this instead: During Hurricane Sandy, thousands of East Coast residents were forced to stay with family, friends, or in shelters. Not only were they exposed to germs they may not have otherwise come in contact with, it’s not uncommon for those who are displaced during natural disasters to lose or forget to bring the medications that are keeping them well. “At a time of stress, to add another unnecessary variation in your routine can be a real stress on your body,” says Hirsch. He recommends keeping a medication list and the names and numbers of your doctors in your wallet or purse, so you don’t forget it if you can’t get home due to inclement weather.
And even in the absence of a natural disaster, make sure you’re taking the medications you’ve been prescribed for any health condition.
5. Maximize the amount of mucus per tissue.
Do this instead: Do you know people who insist on using every last inch of their tissue? Hirsch says you have a higher likelihood of infecting those around you if you allow dirty tissues to accumulate. “One or two uses and you are done. Throw it out,” he says.
6.Don’t get a flu shot.
Do this instead: You can help spread the flu without ever having symptoms yourself, according to Hirsch. Getting a flu shot helps safeguard you from unknowingly spreading it to others, even if you don’t feel sick.
“If a town is full of people who are immune to the flu, then the flu won’t come in and attack those who are very old or very sick,” Hirsch explains. “It’s not just about you. You’re around different people, you’re around coworkers who may have elderly parents living with them, or there may be people in your community who have weakened immune systems or care for people with weakened immune systems. A flu shot isn’t perfect . . . but we’re responsible for our health and the health of people around us.”
That’s one good reason to consider getting a flu shot — not just for yourself, but for your entire community.
Take a hot shower. Breathing in steam may moisten a scratchy throat and nose, as well as loosen your congestion. Although the research is mixed on whether this remedy works, there’s no harm in trying it. The heat can also help relax any aching muscles.
Take an over-the-counter remedy. You may find relief with one of these medications. Take them as directed, and don’t give them to children under age 6 without your pediatrician’s OK.
- Pain reliever for fever and aches. Doctors usually recommend acetaminophen. If you’re taking another cold medicine, though, check that it doesn’t already have the drug. It’s a common ingredient in many OTC remedies, but getting too much can be dangerous. So check the label and ask the pharmacist how much is safe to take at one time.
- Lozenges for a sore throat. They have herbs and other ingredients that can soothe the stinging.
- Decongestant for stuffiness. This medicine shrinks blood vessels in your nose so your airways can open up. But the liquid or pill form may make you feel jittery. Using decongestant sprays and drops too much can cause more congestion, so don’t use them for more than 3 days.
- Expectorant to thin mucus. It can help loosen some of that thick discharge.
- Antihistamine to dry up a runny nose. This drug blocks the chemical in your body that causes sneezes and sniffling.
Taking a decongestant and an antihistamine together may be more helpful than taking either one alone.
Use a saline spray or flush. Over-the-counter saltwater sprays make your nostrils moist, which makes it easier to blow your nose. You may also want to try nasal irrigation. That’s when you gently pour a saline solution into one nostril and let it flow out of the other. It washes away dried mucus so you can breathe easier. You can buy sinus rinses or use a bulb syringe or neti pot. If you do it yourself, always make the saltwater solution with distilled or cooled, boiled water.
Eat chicken soup. Mom was right: This sick-day staple really can make you feel better. Research shows that chicken soup can calm inflammation in your body. This may ease some of your symptoms, such as aches and stuffiness. What’s more, this meal also has liquid and calories to give your body energy.
Every now and then one pops up at work, down the pub, in the park, outside the school gate, or in your own family’s mythology. The person who claims never to get sick. Colds brush past them without leaving so much as a sniffle. They laugh in the flushed face of flu, spray hand sanitiser in the rheumy eyes of infection, and never take a day off work. They appear to be superhuman, with the kind of kickass immune systems the rest of us mere ailing mortals can only dream about as we dissolve another 1,000mg vitamin C tablet and hope for the best. What are their secrets? Can we become more like them? Do they even exist?
“I hardly ever get a cold, bug or infection,” says Lore Lucas, a 97-year-old Jewish refugee and Holocaust survivor who has lived in Glasgow since 1946. “I never drank or smoked, I sleep well and I like a little rest during the day, preferably in bed, or rather on the bed … just shoes off.” What about her diet? “I have been known to have a great dislike for cheese,” she replies, “and I really do not like the Scottish specialities mince, haggis, or porridge.”
During her professional life, first as a maternity nurse in Geneva, where she lived after fleeing Nazi Germany in March, 1938, and then as an office secretary, Lucas never had a day off due to sickness. Did she get ill after the war? “By that time, I was fully aware I would never see my parents, sister, grandparents, ever again,” she says. “Very traumatic … but matters turned much to my favour when I got married in 1946.” Lucas, who has one son and granddaughter and has been a widow for 30 years, puts her exceptional health down to a combination of good genes and a good life. Oh, and a good game of bridge. “To keep active, I play a lot,” she confesses over email as “my hearing aids do not work too well on the phone”. “I am quite addicted, I play in various clubs, and enjoy a social game at home.”
Can you boost your immune system with lemon and ginger tea? Photograph: Getty/iStockphoto
On average, each of us will get around 200 colds in a lifetime. Though some appear to suffer more than others, there is no evidence or, indeed, research on why, or if, that is really the case. “It’s pretty much hearsay and self-reporting,” says Dr Natalie Riddell, a lecturer in immunology at the University of Surrey and spokesperson for the British Society for Immunology. “I need more evidence before I can believe these people really exist.” Though there is no scientifically proven link between lifestyle and enhanced immune function, the immune-boosting industry and our unshakeable belief in it continues to flourish like flu during fresher’s week. Nutritional supplements alone, thought to be one of the world’s fastest-growing businesses, are predicted to be worth $60bn (£48bn) by 2021. As the American writer Eula Biss notes in her excellent book about vaccination, On Immunity, “building, boosting, and supplementing one’s personal immune system is a kind of cultural obsession of the moment”.
Meanwhile, for doctors and immunologists, the notion of superhuman health remains at best unproven and at worst a fiction. This is because of the highly individual and complex nature of our immune systems, which are almost as specific to each of us as our fingerprints. “Some of us inherit a set of immune system genes that are particularly good at dealing with one particular virus,” explains Daniel Davis, professor of immunology at the University of Manchester and author of The Compatibility Gene, which explores how immune system genes shape our biology. “But that is not to say that you or I would have a better or worse immune system. All it means is that you would deal with a particular flu virus better than me. There is an inherent diversity in how our immune systems respond to different diseases and that diversity is essential to how our species survives disease.”
On average, each of us will get around 200 colds in a lifetime. Photograph: Sam Edwards/Getty Images
Much of this diversity comes down to our inherited genetic makeup. “The greatest diversity in all of the 25,000 genes that make up the human genome is in our few immune system genes,” Davis explains. “That means that the genes that vary most between us all are the ones that influence the immune system.”
This unparalleled diversity makes generalisations about stronger or weaker immune systems meaningless. It also throws into question the benefits of all the products out there claiming to boost our immunity; antioxidants, vitamin C, hot lemon and ginger tea, garlic, echinacea, or wheatgrass. Do any of them work?
“The bottom line is that we simply don’t know,” Davis says. Or, as GP and Guardian contributor Ann Robinson puts it: “Keep your scepticism wrapped around you like a cloak.”
So why do some people simply seem to be better at fighting infection than others? “Maybe people at the top end have been primed through early exposure to bugs, fully vaccinated, and so on,” Robinson says. “Each person is wired to be slightly better at fighting off some illnesses and slightly worse at fighting off others,” is how Davis explains it. Both also point to growing evidence that our gut microbiome – the range and quantity of microbes in our guts – impacts the immune system. So there is a link between diet and immunity? “It’s a hot topic,” Davis says, carefully. “Although gut microbiome directly affects the immune system, precisely how isn’t yet clear.”
For 55-year-old architect Jenny Hunter, who “very, very rarely gets ill”, lifestyle and attitude play a part. “My mum didn’t tolerate illness,” she recalls of her childhood, the first five years of which were spent in Australia. “If I thought I was ill she would send me to school and say I’d feel better. She was right … brutal, but right.” What does she do to maintain her health? “My grandfather used to have a cold bath every morning but I don’t have any secrets or perversions,” she laughs. “I have a good diet, keep busy, and I do yoga, pilates and running every week. And I do think happiness plays a part. My default setting is that life is good.”
For Riddell, lifestyle plays a significant part in the functioning of our immune response. “The immune system is not solely governed by genetics,” she insists. “One of my research interests looks at how stress can negatively impact immune function. We have seen a dampening of immune responses among, say care-givers, versus the non-care-giving community.”
Is sleep the key to good health? Photograph: Getty Images/Rubberball
Thomas Walters is a writer and retired academic who refuses to tell me his age but concedes that he is “probably in his final decade”. He has never seen himself as a person who gets ill – in fact, the only illness he can recall having as an adult is shingles, “which passed amazingly quickly”. His lifestyle, like those of all the people I speak to who claim to never get sick, is balanced, moderate, social, and suffused with a positive outlook. “I drink a reasonable amount – one glass of wine a day and sometimes whisky,” he tells me. “I’ve always walked as often as possible. I did smoke for a brief period … Gauloises, because I liked France and the blue packets, but I gave up easily. I sleep extremely well, enjoy my dreams, and have very few nightmares. I tend to work until 10pm and have just finished a book about a late-Victorian architect. I would say my brain is as good as it’s ever been.”
Does he think his good health might be inherited? “I’m three-quarters Welsh peasant and one-quarter French peasant,” he notes. “Tough people. Plenty of my relatives checked out in their 90s, although my parents didn’t live to a great age. My father had a very stressful career and my mother had cancer and died in her mid-60s. I’ve never had that kind of career stress.” Later, Walters emails me with a warning: “Remember, even the healthiest of whales has barnacles growing on it, and bears the scars from scraping against undersea rocks. I recall a Hindu sage who once said: ‘The body itself is a disease.’”
We regard health as the reward for lifestyle choices. Photograph: davidf/Getty Images/iStockphoto
Part of our fascination with the idea of superhuman resistance to illness is the way we view health itself. Not as “a transient state that we may be exiled from without warning”, writes Biss in On Immunity, but as an identity. “Health, it is implied, is the reward for living the way we live, and lifestyle is its own variety of immunity.” For doctors and immunologists, this not only demonstrates a false understanding of the way the immune system operates – the innate and acquired systems working in tandem to neutralise infection so that a cold is, in fact, evidence of an immune system working robustly – it is an unhelpful, even dangerous way to view illness.
“It’s why doctors worry about positive-psychology arguments,” says Robinson. “It implies that if you ‘succumb’ to illness, you’ve somehow lost. Beware the lure of positive psychology if it suggests you’re weak if you get ill.” Perhaps we should view viruses not as the enemy but as the educators of our immune systems. “We might view colds as little boosts and challenges to our immune systems,” Robinson says. “Maybe when we get over a virus we should remember not to moan about the cold but to give thanks to our immune system for fighting it.” Does she believe in the phenomenon of people who never get ill? “I can see neither the evidence nor the benefit of so-called superhumans,” is her reply.
“It’s pretty hard to know whether there is such a phenomena,” Davis agrees. “For me, there is an exceptionally important message in this. All the great tragedies, from slavery to the Holocaust, have come down to a misunderstanding of the differences between people. Not only is our greatest human difference nothing to do with how we look, it is down to our immune systems, and there is no hierarchy in them.” For Davis, narrowing the diversity of our immune systems, even if it were possible, would be undesirable. “That kind of misinformation can lead to people saying we can create humans that are better than others. I strongly believe that is not the case.”
As far as Walters is concerned, “we can do nothing about any of it other than take care of ourselves”. So does he have any tips on how to become, if not superhumans, then our most healthy selves? “Maintain a constant high pitch of curiosity,” he replies after some thought.
• Some names in this piece have been changed
How to never get ill
• Be realistic. There is no such thing.
• Don’t smoke and don’t drink too much alcohol.
• Wash your hands regularly but remember that infections are mostly passed on through proximity. “If you want to avoid a person’s cold on the tube you are better off moving carriage than using hand sanitiser,” says GP Ann Robinson.
Travel sick: infections are mostly passed on through proximity. Photograph: Alamy
• Exercise regularly, moderately and remember to rest. There is evidence that regular exercise, which improves circulation, can boost immunity, though to what extent is unknown.
• Manage stress. “The best established link in terms of how lifestyle impacts the immune system is that stress levels relate to your immune system’s behaviour.” says Professor Daniel Davis. Chronic longterm stress produces cortisol, which neutralises immune cells.
• Immunise, immunise, immunise: if you’re likely to be at increased risk of infection, whether through chemotherapy, long-term steroid use, or pregnancy, get yourself vaccinated.
• Maintain a healthy and varied diet, but don’t go overboard. This connects to the latest research around the importance of our gut microbiome. “A lot of the chemicals important to our immune system originate in the gut,” says Robinson.
• Sleep well. “Sleep has a massive impact on the immune system,” says Dr Riddell. “It’s under the control of circadian rhythms and disturbing it can throw out your immune system.”
• Stay connected. “If there is one thing that’s the enemy of wellbeing it’s loneliness,” says Robinson. “Get out there and connect with people … if not with their viruses.”
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You Really Can Tell Someone’s Sick Just By Looking at Them
As accurate as their participants were in judging photographs, the researchers believe that the effect is probably stronger in person. That’s because when you see somebody in the flesh, you can also assess things like their gait, their throatiness, and how much they complain about their sickness. In the future, say the scientists, they’d like to pinpoint some of the earliest warning signs of a gnarly cold or flu so that a sufferer can sequester themselves before they get too contagious.
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For more about the tiny things you can pick up on without realizing it, check out Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.” The audiobook is free with a trial of Audible. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.
Toxic! Household Products You Didn’t Know Were Poisons
You know drain cleaner is dangerous and that you shouldn’t mix bleach and ammonia when cleaning, but those aren’t the only potentially toxic household products. Your home is full of hidden poisons that could make you, your children, or your pets sick if you’re not careful. And some of them are lurking in plain sight. Here are six common items you might have around your house you didn’t realize were poisonous.
1. Laundry pods
Doing laundry can be dangerous for your health in some instances. | iStock.com
Single-use laundry pods make washing clothes more convenient, but they’re a hidden hazard in the home if you have small children. If a child eats normal liquid or powdered laundry detergent, the worse symptom they’re likely to experience is minor tummy trouble, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. But the pods pose greater risks.
Kids who ingested laundry detergent pods were far more likely to experience serious negative health effects, like coma, respiratory arrest, or pulmonary edema, than those who ate other types of laundry or dish washing detergent, according to a 2016 study published in Pediatrics. At least two children have died after eating the pods.
It’s not clear why laundry pods are so much more dangerous than regular laundry detergent, but the risks of poisoning are serious enough for experts to issue a strong warning to parents. “Households with children younger than 6 years of age should be encouraged to use traditional laundry detergent rather than laundry detergent packets,” the study’s authors warned.
2. Glow sticks
Be careful if your child is a fan of glow sticks. | Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images
Glow sticks are fun to play with, but if they break open, the chemical that causes them to light up can irritate a person’s skin, eyes, and mouth. The chemical, called dibutyl phthalate, won’t kill you, but it can make you uncomfortable. It might also cause your lips or tongue to glow. Children might be exposed to the substance if they bite or chew on the sticks or if they deliberately break them open.
If someone is exposed to a small amount dibutyl phthalate, you should rinse the exposed area, according to the Illinois Poison Center. If some of the chemical was ingested, drink some water. Ingesting more than a mouthful of the glow stick substance could cause more serious symptoms, and you should call your local poison control center for advice on what to do.
3. Hand sanitizer
Hand sanitizer is helpful — as long as kids don’t accidentally ingest it. | iStock.com
Germ-killing hand sanitizer is supposed to keep you healthy, not make you sick. Yet, sweetly scented and brightly colored gels can appeal to kids. If they ingest more than a small amount, children could get very sick.
“There is no doubt among toxicologists that the ingestion of alcohol-based hand sanitizers by children can pose a serious threat of alcohol poisoning,” the AAPCC said. Hand sanitizers contain anywhere from 40% to 95% alcohol, and if a child consumes more than a taste, they could experience confusion, vomiting, or drowsiness. In severe cases, they might stop breathing or even die.
To keep kids safe, place hand sanitizer out of reach and make sure they only use it with adult supervision. The Food and Drug Administration is also investigating whether it’s really safe for kids and pregnant women to use hand sanitizer.
Philodendrons can be toxic. | iStock.com
Philodendrons are easy to care for and thrive indoors, making them the ideal choice for a houseplant. Unfortunately, they’re also toxic. Most adults won’t have anything to worry about, but if cats or dogs chew on the leaves they might experience an irritated mouth, burning on the lips or tongue, excessive drooling, vomiting, and trouble swallowing, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Smalls kids who put the leaves in their mouth might experience similar symptoms, including blistering and swelling in the mouth that’s so severe, it’s difficult to talk or swallow. However, the plant causes such intense mouth pain that most people won’t eat very much of it.
Philodendrons aren’t the only toxic plant you might have around the house. Peace lilies, aloe, calla lilies, and other plants can also cause mouth irritation or gastrointestinal symptoms if consumed, according to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
5. Nicotine gum and liquid nicotine
Nicotine products can be toxic to children. | iStock.com
Products containing nicotine, including gum, lozenges, patches, and e-cigarettes, are toxic when consumed in large quantities. Ingest enough of the stuff, and it can kill you very quickly. Though chewing nicotine gum or sucking a lozenge won’t deliver enough poison to harm an adult, these products can be toxic to small kids.
The liquid nicotine used to refill e-cigarettes may be even more dangerous. There have already been numerous reported cases of children getting sick after drinking liquid nicotine, and a few adults have been poisoned from the substance after skin contact. Some predict it’s only a matter of time before a child consumes a lethal dose.
“It’s not a matter of if a child will be seriously poisoned or killed,” Lee Cantrell, director of the San Diego division of the California Poison Control System and a professor of pharmacy at the University of California, San Francisco, told The New York Times. “It’s a matter of when.”
6. Energy drinks
Energy drinks can cause major issues. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Energy drinks, which combine caffeine with ingredients like taurine and B vitamins, claim to give you the fuel you need to concentrate and get through a long day. But these powerful beverages might not be safe.
Studies have shown that downing just a single energy drink could cause heart problems later on. And several people have filed suit against the makers of these drinks claiming they can cause kidney failure and heart attacks. Consuming energy drinks has been linked to a range of serious health problems, particularly in young adults and children, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Kids who consume energy drinks may experience symptoms like abnormal heart rhythm and seizures, and the American Medical Association says they shouldn’t be sold to anyone younger than 18.
When loved ones are sick, you’re desperate to find ways to comfort them. Unfortunately, your well-meaning attempts can sometimes fall flat. To help you navigate these sensitive situations, we asked Fran Walfish, PhD, a relationship psychotherapist, author, and consultant on CBS’ “The Doctors” to give us some pointers. Here are a few do’s and don’ts to help you truly comfort the sick people in your life.
The biggest mistake people make is being vague, so DON’T ask “How can I help?” Walfish says. Patients don’t want the burden put on them to come up with something you can do so if you really want to be useful, identify something that needs doing and offer to do that. Think cooking dinner, cleaning, babysitting children, driving them to appointments, or picking up groceries. If you’re still tempted to be general this powerful story will convince you to stop saying “Let me know if you need anything.”
Here’s what to say—and not say
DO say, “Do you want me to come over while you wait for test results?” Having someone available when they get emotionally charged news can be invaluable, Walfish says.
DO say, “I’m bringing dinner Thursday. Do you want lasagna or chicken?” Giving them a choice allows them to state a preference without overwhelming them. Be sure to ask about allergies and how many people will be eating. Consider bringing a meal that can be easily frozen and reheated.
DO say, “I have Monday free if you need me to run some errands or take you somewhere.” Letting them know your schedule isn’t being picky, it’s a kindness. This way they won’t feel as if they’re imposing, she says. Is it a mental illness? Try these 12 tips to help someone with depression.
DON’T say, “You look great.” Very sick people are aware that their hair is falling out, their skin is covered with sores, or they’ve become skeletal. Avoid commenting on appearances totally or stick to things that feel more genuine, Walfish says. For example, “Your eyes are sparkling” or “I can see your determination.”
DO say, “Can I take your kids for a play date? My kids would love to have friends over.” When a parent is sick, their children often suffer as well. Keeping them as normal as possible will also help their parent feel better by letting them know their little ones are being cared for, she says. For more ideas of what not to do with kids, check out 45 of the worst tips parents ever got.
DO say, “No response necessary.” Patients, especially those with long-term illnesses, can get overwhelmed with the burden of keeping everyone informed and feeling appreciated. Take this burden off of them by letting them know you don’t expect or need a reply if they’re not feeling up to it. When you drop off a gift or meal, tell them that no thank-you card is necessary. (And consider letting them keep the Tupperware too!)
DO say, “I don’t know what to say, but I care about you and I’d like to listen.” It’s totally fine to admit that you love them but you don’t know what to do, Walfish says. Most people are thrown for a loop by a serious or chronic health condition. This also gives them an opening to talk if they like.
DO say, “I need to go now.” Most sick people cannot handle long visits so don’t overstay your welcome. Try visiting for 20 minutes, even less if the patient is tired or in pain. And while you’re there, wash a few dishes, clean the room, and take out the trash when you leave. Do you know the two words to never say to a friend going through a crisis?
DO say, “Would you like to hear the latest updates on our friends?” When you don’t know what to say, a change of topic goes a long way—here are 11 more golden rules of good conversation. Patients are often sick of talking about their illness and will be excited to hear how common friends and family are doing. You can also bring up more general news—almost everyone has an opinion about the senator’s indiscretion, the underdog in the playoffs, or the latest celebrity gossip.
DO say, “Do you just need to vent? I’m all ears!” And then, listen. Listening attentively can be the best gift you can give a person, Walfish says.
DO say, “I really admire how you are handling this. I know it’s difficult.” A little sympathy and a compliment are almost always welcome.
DO say, “It’s okay not to be the perfect sick person.” Patients can feel a lot of pressure to “be strong” “stay positive” or “fight hard”, even when they’re feeling sad and weak. Let your loved one know that however they are feeling is acceptable and you don’t expect them to be the poster child for cancer, Walfish explains.
DO say, “I love you.” When all else fails, simple, direct emotion is the most powerful gift you can give a loved one going through pain. It doesn’t need to be fancy. It just needs to be sincere.
If the sick person is you, be sure to check out this guide: How to Survive a Health Crisis or Chronic Illness.
‘Quarantine the Kids!’ and Other Helpful Hacks to Keep Everyone in the House from Getting Sick
There are few feelings in the world of parenting that compare with the dread you feel when you welcome your kids home from school only to realize that one of them has a brand-new cough and runny nose.
You may be thinking: “Oh no! Sally’s sick, and then it’s going to be little Bobby … and then Mom and Dad are next!”
Don’t fret! As the #healthboss of the house, you’ve got this.
Between the cold, flu, and stomach bug, there’s plenty of sickness passed around in colder seasons. But there’s a lot you can do to try to keep the rest of the family healthy (including yourself) when illness strikes.
Should germs make you squirm?
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but germs are everywhere. And many cold and flu germs can stay alive on surfaces for several hours.
Here’s the good news: Many of them will never make you sick. But when someone in your family brings them home, you need to be more careful. The most common way people pass on illness is through personal contact. This means that any time you share eating or drinking utensils, shake hands, or breathe in germs after a cough or sneeze, you’re putting yourself at risk.
7 ways to stay sanitary, strong, and safe
1. Sink your teeth into the vampire cough
Children come in contact with tons of germs at school and day care, and they’re often the first to bring home sickness. Teach them to cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze. That will help keep germs from coming into contact with other family members and different surfaces within your house.
And while you’re at it, remind the adults about this coughing and sneezing etiquette rule as well. While people may be tempted to cough into their hands, it can spread sickness faster. Coughing and sneezing into the bend of your elbow — otherwise known as the “vampire cough” — helps lessen the risk. No fangs required, of course.
2. Quarantine those kids!
It sounds crazy, I know, but creating a “sick space” in the house can help keep germs contained to one area of your home. Whether it’s the guest room, family room, or a kid’s room, make it cozy and let whoever is sick sleep there. If another person shows signs of infection, they can hang out there too. Give each person their own glass, washcloth, and towel. It’s not a prison and of course they can come in and out as needed. It’s simply a safe haven for your little invalid to hunker down, sneeze as much as they need to, and contain those nasty germs from siblings (which is especially helpful if you have a small baby in the house).
Other items you may want to keep in the sick room include:
- separate trash can
- hand sanitizer
- ice and water/clear liquids
- face masks
If you have the option, it’s also a good idea for the sick person to use one bathroom in your home while the rest of the family uses another.
3. Remember to reach for those daily vitamins
If you weren’t taking your daily vitamins before, now is most definitely the time to double down on strengthening your immune system.
Even if you already take a multivitamin, you may want to pay special attention to vitamins C, B-6, and E. Fortunately, most people get enough of these vitamins through eating a healthy diet.
Vitamin C is the biggest immune system booster of all, and the body doesn’t store it. In fact, if you don’t get enough, you may be more prone to getting sick. It’s in citrus fruits, kale, and bell peppers, among other foods.
Vitamin B-6 affects certain reactions in the immune system. It can be found in green veggies and chickpeas.
Vitamin E helps the body fight infection. It’s found in nuts, seeds, and spinach.
Even if you do get a lot of vitamins in your foods, doctors occasionally recommend supplementing. If you have questions about taking vitamins and supplements, give your doctor a call.
4. Keep your body strong with broccoli and bananas
You’ve heard it before: The foods you eat may have the power to improve your immunity, so try eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, and other whole foods. We’ve got plenty of recipes on hand that are both delicious and good for your immune system!
5. Pop those probiotics
You may have heard that taking probiotics is good for your gut health, but they may also stimulate your immune system. Consider taking probiotics on a daily basis, but read labels carefully to make sure you’re taking the right ones.
These six probiotic strains have been linked to improved immunity:
- Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG
- Lactobacillus casei Shirota
- Bifidobacterium animalis Bb-12
- Lactobacillus johnsonii La1
- Bifidobacterium lactis DR10
- Saccharomyces cerevisiae boulardii
6. Double down on your hand-washing routine
Not to keep harping on this gross realization, but you can pick up germs from virtually everything you touch during the day. Washing your hands frequently and correctly is one of the best ways to stay healthy. These five steps lay it out very easily:
- Get your hands wet with hot or cold water.
- Add your soap and lather well.
- Wash the soap around for at least 20 seconds. And don’t forget the backs of your hands and between your fingers. (You may find that singing “Happy Birthday” or a few versus of Bobby Darin’s classic “Splish Splash I was taking a bath” helps pass the time.)
- Rinse your hands well and dry with a clean or disposable towel. An air dryer works as well.
- If you can, turn off the faucet with your elbow or a towel to avoid re-contamination.
You also don’t need to worry about using soaps that are marketed as “antibacterial.” Regular soap works just as well. It’s more important that you wash long enough and get all surfaces clean.
If you aren’t around a faucet, hand sanitizer is another good option. Just make sure that yours contains at least 60 percent alcohol.
7. Explore using elderberry syrup
Many people swear by taking elderberry syrup at the first sign of a cold. Elderberries contain both flavonoids and antioxidants that can ward off damage to your body’s cells. It certainly helps that it tastes delicious, so even your little ones will enjoy the sweet flavor!
With regard to colds and flus, elderberry is anti-inflammatory, so it may alleviate your congestion and any swelling in the sinuses. It may even protect you from getting sick in the first place!
You can find elderberry in liquid, syrup, tincture, capsule, and lozenge form. Speak with your doctor before taking supplements. This is especially important if you want to give elderberry to children or take it if you’re pregnant or nursing.