Arthritis and the Fine Art of Germ Avoidance. l

Posted on 05 May 2010

What does one shiftless immune system, one or more cytotoxic/immunosuppressant drugs and the flu season equal? A rather naked vulnerability to illness. Read on for defensive measures you can take during the cold and flu season…

Recently, my family was struck down by a mongrel virus that seemed to be comprised of part cholera and part Ebola. It would strike with sudden viciousness: stomach cramps, fever, migraine, chills, which ultimately led to having bad stuff come out of every part of the body. We weren’t the only family affected, either; this nasty little bug swept all of the children at my son’s elementary school (along with the corresponding teachers and parents), and took half of Radford with it. Even my Pathologically Healthy husband, he of the Teflon immune system, was struck down.

The difference was, however, that while everyone else seemed to bounce back after a couple of days, I was down for ten: every time I thought the saga was over, I would get sucker-punched by a nasty little sequel.

It’s just a plain, sad fact that those of us with rheumatoid arthritis are more vulnerable to bugs. Perversely, that confused, overactive immune system of ours is so busy beating the crap out of us that it takes awhile for it to notice our legitimate illnesses. And, until scientists can develop a drug that instructs rather than suppresses, many of us will be stuck with damn ineffective defenses.

An Ounce of Prevention…

If only we were as sensible as the Japanese. During the cold and flu season, it is not unusual to see dozens of businessman/women sniffling behind surgical masks. In fact, it is considered the height of rudeness not to wear a sterile mask; after all, the Japanese are as overworked as Americans, their sick leave just as meager. Quite frankly, they just don’t have time to be exposed to your germs. Here in America, however, wearing a mask is a culturally silly thing to do. John Wayne would never wear a surgical mask; neither would Clint Eastwood. Michael Jackson would and frequently does, which is probably the number one reason why Americans refuse to don the mask.

Despite our refusal to resemble Michael Jackson or other alien life forms, we are apparently no more resistant to germs than the Japanese. Every year, 62 million people catch a cold; 100 million will be struck down with the flu. Big deal, right? It is, actually: 20,000 Americans die from the flu every year; it’s unclear how many die from a cold turned into pneumonia.

Yet, even those of us with weenie immune systems can prevent many illnesses, just by taking care of ourselves, i.e. taking the time to use good hygiene. Taking the following steps will not guarantee good health, but it is likely to prevent nasty little bugs from abducting your body and holding you hostage.

Avoid Children

Okay, I’m being a little facetious, here. Anyone who knows me for longer than 30 minutes know that my entire raison d’etre is my children. Had arthritis not struck (along with accompanying fetus-hating drugs), I would have had five. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that children are seething cauldrons of bacteria. They touch foul things, pick at rude places, share things with dogs and turtles and slide their infested little hands over every possible surface. If you have a child—and especially a school-age child—you will have to resign yourself to sharing at least some of their many illnesses. Take the following advice (below) and square it.

Avoid Sick People

This isn’t as simple as it sounds, especially if you work in an environment with stingy sick leave. The American workplace has rather stupid policies regarding sick leave, which forces walking microbes (formerly known as your coworkers) to hover in the cubicle nearby. Be sympathetic from a distance and—as soon as they turn their heads—wipe all surfaces (and yourself) with antibacterial wipes.

Avoid Indoor Crowds

The reason so many people get sick in the winter is not because of the cold but because we cram ourselves into overheated buildings, like malls, schools and home. Statistically speaking, there is bound to be at least one sick person there, politely sneezing into their hands and then using those hands to touch everything in your path.

Whenever your are confronted with the above situations, take the Howard Hughes approach and become a bit obsessive. If it seems silly or a waste of time, just remember the year before when that cold turned into an infection that wouldn’t go away or that flu that lasted for 6 weeks. That oughta do it.

* Do not kiss, hug, shake hands with or sleep next to an obviously sick person.

If the sick person is a reasonable individual, tell them the truth about your sissy immune system. If the person is a narcissistic jerk, tell them you are sick as well and you don’t want to make them any sicker.
# Assume all surfaces are contaminated.
Assume doorknobs, phones, counters, and coins/cash (I guess there is some truth to the phrase “filthy lucre”) are infested and act accordingly. Open push doors with your arm instead of your hand; bring along your own handkerchief for doorknobs and phones. For other situations, bring along some antibacterial wipes or gel. And keep your hands away from your face; like it or not, you’re germy, too.

# Wash your hands!
The number one way to avoid contagion is by washing your hands frequently and well. That means using plenty of soap and warm/hot water, taking off your rings and scrubbing all surfaces of your hands and fingers for at least one minute. Nurses time themselves by singing the alphabet song. Don’t use communal towels, either. Either assign a hand towel for every member of the house or use paper towels. Finally, you should probably finish up with a little bit of lotion. Chapped hands can crack and lead to infection, especially for those of us on Prednisone.

# Eat and sleep well.
Get at least 5 servings of fruit and vegetables a day; get at least 6-8 hours of sleep a day. Yeah, yeah, yeah, you’ve heard it all before, but how many of you are actually doing it?

# Exercise—when you are well.
Exercise boosts the immune system and makes you stronger, but exercising while sick can accelerate a minor illness into something serious. Exercise when you are well, rest when you are sick. And, no, your thighs don’t look fat.

# Take Vitamins…within reason.
So far, there is no replicated evidence that vitamins C, zinc or any other vitamin can prevent a cold…but taking a daily multivitamin certainly can’t hurt. What can hurt are mega doses of vitamins. A recent study (to be fair, I don’t believe that the results of this study have been replicated, either) that large doses of vitamin C actually caused gene mutations. Certain vitamins, like vitamin A, can become toxic at relatively low doses, so follow the directions of your doctor, not your guru.

# Reduce stress.
Yeah, well…good luck. After all, life is stress. However, many people—especially nice, suburban mom-types—suffer from self-inflicted stress by currying to everybody’s expectations except their own. Learn how to say NO.

# Getting a flu shot.
Ah, the gentle influenza vaccine, much maligned and quite benevolent. And yet, that silly myth persists that getting the flu vaccine will give you the flu. Impossible. The flu vaccine is made from a killed virus, which is incapable of causing disease. Still not convinced? Okay, how about this: the flu vaccine can prevent up to 70% of hospitalizations due to flu complications and 85% of flu-related pneumonia. The flu vaccine is widely available, relatively inexpensive and perfectly safe (check with your doctor, anyway). It’s not too late to get it, so what are you waiting for?
to beontinued…

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