Okay, so what if you overcame your needle phobia and got the flu shot, alienated all of the shunned sick people in your life, scrubbed your hands scaly, lived like a well-nourished hermit and you get sick anyway?
Hey, it happens. None of us are bulletproof, especially those of us with ignorant immune systems.
And those of us with the aforementioned immune systems need to take extra care when we do get sick. Many felonious bugs elude scientists and refused to be identified, so for practical purposes, I’ll divide the next section into caring for colds and flus. First of all, which do you have?
May include some or all of the following symptoms:
* lasts 2-14 days
* nasal congestion/sneezing
* sore throat
* dry cough
* mild fatigue
* slight fever
May include some or all of the following symptoms:
* can last up to 2 weeks; fatigue can last for several weeks
* nasal congestion
* sore throat
* dry cough (more severe than with cold)
* aching muscles
* severe headaches
* extreme fatigue
There is a commercial that illustrates the difference between a cold and a flu with images of a gentle rainstorm (cold) to a hurricane (flu). Even so, medical advice is pretty much the same for both:
* Drink plenty of clear fluids.
Dehydration can occur more quickly than you think, especially if you have a fever. Drink more water than you think you need and avoid caffeine.
Rest is an ambiguous term (there was a time when I would interpret that to mean cutting back on one of my three jobs), so I’ll let the medical establishment spell it out: STAY IN BED AT LEAST ONE FULL DAY. Those of you still living in the real world with troglodyte bosses and mortgages to pay are sneering, so I’ll amend that to: AT LEAST GO STRAIGHT TO BED AFTER WORK. There…is that better?
# Use OTC meds for comfort…carefully.
Tylenol and its ilk are a godsend for various aches and pains, but please be careful. Even the most benign-sounding drug is still, in fact, a drug and should be respected as such. If you are taking prescription medication for your arthritis do not take anything without your doctor’s permission! Think I’m being paranoid? Okay, how about this: there is some evidence that ibuprofen should not be combined with methotrexate. Apparently, ibuprofen can raise the level of methotrexate to toxic extremes. Make friends with your doctor’s nurse and call before you take anything not approved by your doctor.
Inhale hot steam.
A nice hot bath or, better yet, a steamy shower will relieve your nose and head congestion, which may accelerate the healing process. Humidifiers and vaporizers work, too, but there is some controversy that bacteria can become trapped within, which could actually make you sicker. Ask your doctor.
# Avoid tobacco.
All of you smug (albeit, smart) folks who have never smoked are probably saying, “Jeez, this chick has a gift for the obvious.” True. But as non-practicing tobacco junky (I won’t say ex-tobacco junky because I still want to smoke. Sheer willpower and blackmailing children prevent me), I understand what it is like to crawl on my hands and knees from the sick bed to an ashtray. If you can’t stop completely, at least try to keep it down to 5 or less a day.
Okay…Real Sick, Now
There is some controversy as to whether methotrexate leaves you more vulnerable to colds and flus (of course it does, you scientific nitwits!); however, there is no question about the dangers of Prednisone, Remicaide and other cytotoxic drugs. If you are taking any drug that suppresses your immune system, never ignore persistent symptoms. You are more susceptible to infections—especially of the lung—and the same drugs that help you function can impair your ability to heal. Don’t ever be afraid to “bother” the doctor with seemingly minor symptoms. Studies show that “good patients” (friendly, compliant, hesitant to speak up or complain) have poorer prognoses than pain-in-the-butt patients who advocate for their rights and their health. Don’t be an arthritis wimp…raising a little hell may keep you out of the hospital.
(Note: the following advice is intended for healthy people…those with dysfunctional immune systems should report troublesome symptoms even sooner).
When to Call the Doctor
* if it lasts longer than 2 weeks
* if you have an earache
* if you have sinus pressure
* if you have a fever over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (could be an indication of infection)
* high fever
* yellow-green mucus
* difficulty breathing
Please, please don’t ignore this symptom, particularly if you are taking methotrexate and Remicaide. Both drugs make you more vulnerable to pulmonary disease…and people still die from pneumonia in this country. To illustrate my point, my doctor (after chiding me for not reporting a month-long bout of the flu) told me about another “good patient” of his who ignored a persistent cough for a few days because she didn’t want to use up her sick leave at work. She ended up having a nice, long vacation under an oxygen tent. It was months before she was well enough to take care of herself and she may have breathing difficulties for the rest of her life. You’re not being silly, you’re not a hypochondriac and it’s not your imagination: if you are having persistent symptoms—especially any type of chest pain or impaired breathing—call your doctor.
The Tao of Dealing With a Recalcitrant Immune System: A Modern Metaphor
I’ve noticed many similarities between my wayward immune system and my teenage daughter. They’re both moody, capricious and cause me a great deal of anxiety–and yet, they are not without their good days. As with raising teenagers, we of the weak immune systems have to perform a balancing act of knowing when to restrain and when to let go.
Let’s just hope that my immune system makes better grades and doesn’t try to date Goth stoners with bad personalities.]]>
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.
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?