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EXPERT OPINION: Colds and flu with Val Schultz

What really works to prevent a cold? At Health Services, each exam is a chance for me to educate a student, and for colds and flu it’s all about hand- washing. We don’t realize how often our hands touch our faces, to scratch our nose or wipe our eye... We’ve all heard it since we were kids, but hand-washing is still the best defense, and very effec- tive, against colds and flu. Alcohol-based sanitizers do a good

job too. It’s just that there’s some con- cern about whether they do too good a job. Our hyperuse of antibacterial agents may be contributing to the increase in allergies we’ve seen over the past few decades. Soap-and-water hand-washing doesn’t kill microbes chemically, but in- stead removes them mechanically. Soap helps dissolve the thin layer of oil on your skin so it can be rinsed away, tak- ing bacteria and viruses with it. Unfor - tunately, you do need to scrub for at least 15 or 20 seconds to thoroughly loosen those skin oils. Some people post a little song verse on the mirror over their sink (“Happy Birthday” is what hygienists often recommend) and sing it while they’re washing, to make sure they spend enough time.

What else do you advise for prevention? After hand-washing, we need to honor the value of rest. Again we’ve all heard it for so long, but again it’s absolutely true: a well-rested body has a stronger im- mune system. Good hydration helps too. When our sinuses and lungs are exposed to so much dry heat indoors in the win- ter, it makes them much more vulnerable to bacteria and viruses. Drinking plenty of fluids can compensate for that, and it works on a cellular level as well, to help all our cells function properly. Aim for

two liters, or about eight glasses, of water a day. As for not handling door- knobs or other objects, that seems over- cautious to me. And I’d never say you should forego the human touch of a handshake just for fear of picking up germs. In our underslept, fast-paced society,

we may feel we can’t get a full night’s sleep or fit in a between-meal glass of water or a thorough hand-washing, but I hope that when peo- ple understand how central these prac- tices are to good health, they’ll spare a few extra seconds for them.

What about spreading germs to others? I counsel the Skidmore stu- dents who work at the dining hall about good hy- giene when they have a cold, and it’s not hard. If you wash your hands frequently and you cover any sneezes or coughs in the crook of your elbow, having a basic cold is no reason to self- isolate. The rule of thumb is that unless you have a fever of 100 or more, or

unless you’re really sneezing or cough- ing a lot, you don’t need to stay home. Obviously during the first few days of a cold you shouldn’t share drinking or eat- ing utensils or kiss your partner or baby, but otherwise you don’t present much of a risk to others (assuming they’re wash- ing their hands often!).

Which cold remedies are worth taking? The one over-the-counter prod- uct I like is Mucinex (the gener- ic name is guaifenesin), an ex- pectorant that thins secretions to ease a cough. But instead of reaching for the cough suppressants or nasal decon- gestants, I prefer to start with simpler, safer approaches like steam, a plain saline nose spray, herbal teas or hot water with lemon, maybe a hot pack for stiff muscles... And don’t discount the psycho - somatic value of engaging in self-care—of

course, it’s so intangible, but I’m a firm believer that it has a soothing benefit.

Val Schultz is a fami- ly nurse practitioner with a master’s in maternal/child nurs- ing. She’s been work- ing at Skidmore’s Health Services for five years.



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