It's always important to take colds and flu seriously, because every year thousands of people end up with complications of both; many end up in the hospital, and every year there are deaths. But this year it's particularly important, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is warning us that the flu could be more severe than usual.
As a pediatrician, I spend a lot of time talking with families about colds and flu--and I find that lots of people don't do simple, common-sense things that could make all the difference. Here are the 5 most common mistakes people make:
1.They don't wash their hands. People (usually) wash their hands after using the bathroom and sometimes before they eat, but other than that, most folks go about their lives, touching all sorts of things and surfaces, without thinking about washing their hands. Which is too bad, because a. lots of those things and surfaces have germs on them and b.washing your hands goes a really, really long way toward preventing colds and flu. The easiest way to make it happen: carry hand sanitizer with you, and have it around the house. If washing the old-fashioned way with soap and water works better for you, that's fine--it's just that getting ourselves into a different room doesn't always happen easily, and we can't carry sinks with us. Get in the habit washing your hands every couple of hours and after being in a public place (and teaching your children to do the same), whether or not the hands look dirty.
2. They don't stay home. Now, it's hard to stay out of work or school every time you catch a cold, and for the whole duration of the illness. That's not practical (given that it's common to catch several colds every year, and they can last a couple of weeks, well, obviously that won't work. But when there is fever, or a really bad cough, or vomiting or diarrhea, going to work or school is not only going to spread germs everywhere, but pretty much ensure a longer recovery. Toughing it out is actually a bad plan all around. Stay home, get better, and keep your germs to yourself.
3. They don't rest. This is obviously part of #2--if you don't stay home you aren't resting--but it's more, too. When you are sick, you need more sleep, plain and simple. This means going to bed earlier (and possibly taking naps). It means skipping workouts and sports practices. It means lying low on weekends instead of going out shopping or with friends. It means taking it easy--and most people just don't. Which is another quick way to ensure that it takes longer to get better.
4. They take medications that don't help--and sometimes make things worse. I get the appeal of taking a "cold medicine." It sounds like it will help--or even make the cold go away quicker. Well, it doesn't work that way. Most cold medicines don't do much more than make money for drug stores and drug companies--and they can have side effects (in kids, we worry enough about the side effects that we don't want anybody under the age of 6 taking them).
To make you and your family feel better, the simple stuff is best, such as:
-lots of fluids (like water, diluted juice, chicken soup, broth or herbal tea)
-honey and cough drops to soothe a cough (no honey for babies under a year of age, though)
-a humidifier (or a long steamy shower) to clear out the nose and throat
-acetaminophen or ibuprofen for fever or aches (for kids, check with your doctor for the right dose)
-an extra pillow at night (never for babies--raise the head of the crib or crib mattress instead)
Remember, too, that antibiotics don't make colds and flu better. Colds and flu are caused by viruses, and antibiotics only work against bacteria. There is an antiviral medication that we sometimes use to fight the flu--your doctor will know if it makes sense for you.
5. They don't get the flu shot. Please, get your whole family vaccinated. Even if it's not perfect protection (this year it may be even less perfect than usual), it's protection. And while side effects are always possible (as with any medical treatment), the flu vaccine is safe and you can't catch the flu from it. Remember, too, that it's not just about you--while you might prefer to catch the flu than get the shot, there are lots of people (like infants and people with chronic disease) who might catch it from you--and get dangerously sick. Getting the flu shot is good for everyone.
For more information on the flu--including how to recognize it, care for it, and the activity in your state--as well as the flu vaccine, go to www.flu.gov.