By Lindsay Nemelka
Fall is practically nonexistent up here in the farthest reaches of Utah. The seasonal change is noticed only after glancing out the window one morning to discover a sudden appearance of snow after several days of 70° weather.
Every year residents of Logan buckle up for winter and the coming onslaught of cold and flu viruses by hoarding medications and dusting off their grandma’s homemade remedy books. But is there a way we can actually prevent ourselves from getting the same crummy cold year after year despite our best efforts? Well, no. There is no guaranteed way to avoid viruses. What’s important is not just making sure that our bathroom medicine cabinets are stocked, but that our bodies’ immune system is fully charged and prepared for the inevitable intruders.
The nature of viruses such as the cold and flu is that they are easy to spread, are transmitted by way of the respiratory system, and can live on surfaces for hours. This means, every time Joe Schmuck comes to class with a cold and coughs into his hand and then touches the desk or doorknob, he is spreading these virulents. Though there is not a surefire way to avoid these viruses it is possible to increase our defenses against them.
John W. Barrett, MD, of the Student Health and Wellness Center said, “The best thing you can do is try not to touch your face, your eyes, your mouth; because your hands are where you pick these things up.”
Barrett also suggests washing frequently to help get rid of the germs already nesting on one’s hands. However, most of us don’t walk around with a bottle of hand sanitizer and pull it out two or three times a day with this in mind. Let’s face it. It is inevitable that these viruses will get inside our bodies.
Our best offense against these stealthy intruders is a strong defense. “I think the most important thing is to take care of yourself so that your immune system can handle whatever comes along, Barrett said.” Of course this can be done by getting enough sleep (8 hours a night are recommended), staying well hydrated (consume 40-50oz of water per day), managing stress, and eating healthy.
Barrett said he noticed students especially have a hard time with bad eating and sleeping habits. He said there are a lot of students who are “drinking vitamin water thinking that’s a substitute, and it’s not.” Getting the recommended amount of fruits (a strawberry-flavored Pop-tart ≠ a serving of fruit) and veggies is just as important as getting enough sleep, Barrett suggested.
Cliché? Yes. We’ve all heard this a hundred times, and for some unfathomable reason it’s hard for students to do these basic ‘general care’ instructions because we think our schedules are too busy to fit in eight hours of sleep a night. However, if our immune systems are strong, most of these viruses will be vaporized before our bodies exhibit symptoms. Even if we end up catching a cold, we will be able to get over it quicker and it won’t be as severe if our bodies are prepared.
So if it is impossible for us to avoid these viruses, what is the point of vaccines?
There are so many variations of cold and flu viruses out there that are changing and mutating, with new ones popping up each year, that it is impossible for us to create vaccinations for all of them.
The CDC monitors trends and epidemics throughout the year and decides which of the viruses are the most common or the most dangerous—Influenza H1N1, H3N2, and B to be exact — and creates mass vaccines catered to those few specific viruses. The vaccine is designed to prevent a specific illness that is very severe—not a bad cold; a common misconception, according to Barrett.
Many people exhibit flu-like symptoms and believe they have the flu (Influenza) virus. More often, this is not the case. “Influenza is like the worst cold you’ve ever had, on steroids. Most people say they feel like they’ve been hit by a bus,” he said.
Flu vaccines are recommended for anyone over 6 months of age. “Yes, flu shots are worth it. Even if they are not 100 percent effective, they will keep you from getting as ill as you would have got otherwise,” Barrett said. He also recommends that we don’t wait to get these vaccinations, but to sign up as soon as they become available to the general public. Flu season tends to peak in January, but can start as early as October.
Scenario time. Let’s say you do your best to eat right and stay healthy. You prepare for the cold and flu season by getting a flu vaccine and you do your best to avoid people who are sick. But you end up catching a bad cold anyway. Thanks to your preparedness, your immune system is already working to destroy the virus as quickly as it can, but in the meantime, you want to find a way to speed up the process.
You remember your mother getting all hyped up about a formula called Airborne, which upon taken at the first sign of a cold claims to reduce the time it takes to get over said cold. Do formulas like these actually work?
Another common misconception with cold and flu viruses is that medications are available that shorten the duration of the virus, thus enabling you to get better quicker. But according to Barrett, this is not true. “The best available scientific evidence is that none of those [drugs] do very much at all. …There’s very little of anything that works once you get a cold because of the nature of the viral illness,” he said.
Barrett clarified that there is a difference between medications that help you feel better, and medications that pretend they are going to make the cold go away faster. Zinc, Echinacea, and Airborne are all about marketing, said Barrett, and do not live up to their promises that you will get better faster. Medications meant to make you feel better by relieving symptoms such as decongestion are the ones that work.
“Everybody wants to find some pill that they can take to help them when they get a cold or a viral illness. If you understand the nature of how viruses work, you can actually understand why that’s a bit ludicrous from a scientific standpoint. Viruses get inside your cells, and then they make your cells make more of them. Then our immune system responds and we get all these symptoms. Since viruses are already inside our cells, it’s already too late,” Barrett said.
There is not much anyone can do once they’ve caught a cold except wait it out and get plenty of rest while trying to relieve symptoms. The big question: at what point should you see a doctor?
Barrett said if you experience a high fever of 101 degrees, have intense body aches, or shortness of breath then it is recommended you see a doctor because you may have Influenza.
However, the staff at the Student Health and Wellness Center can be easily overwhelmed during this season. Students come in all the time who are sick with a common cold that doctor’s can’t really do anything about. Barrett suggests that instead of making an appointment to see the doctor, students should talk to one of the nurses on staff. The nurse could help determine whether the virus is a cold or something more serious. They also have great remedies for colds.
The bottom line? Getting sick sucks, and is sometimes inevitable. But there are simple things students should be doing right now to prepare themselves for the cold and flu season.