Wintertime colds and the flu seem inevitable. How, then, do you lower your family’s risks – not just for colds and flu but for all communicable illnesses? A few common-sense steps can help.
Each thing you touch, everywhere you go, everyone you meet – all of us carry germs. “I think we as doctors could do better at setting expectations,” says Dr. Avril P. Beckford, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatricians. “I always explain to parents that colds are going to happen, and if a child is in daycare, they will get exposed to illnesses and mount a fever in response. That’s the way children’s immune systems are primed. If parents are told that right away, they don’t assume it’s dangerous.”
Even so, “there’s a lot we can do to help our immune system and overcome or stave off infections before they take hold,” says Beckford.
Eat right, sleep lots
The human body is a remarkable machine, especially when treated well. “Our immune cells, our B cells, our T cells – they’re dependent on adequate nutrition,” says Beckford. That means more fruits and vegetables and less processed food, as well as sufficient rest – for kids and parents.
Elbows and hands are key
Covering your mouth with your hand when you cough or sneeze used to be standard wisdom for slowing down germs but not so much anymore. Instead, doctors today suggest coughing or sneezing into the crook of your elbow (sometimes jokingly called the Vampire Cough) to lessen the chance of spreading bacteria and viruses. That simple step, along with handwashing
(water, soap and a vigorous scrub for 20 seconds), are today’s gold standards for slowing the spread of colds and flu, says Beckford.
Learn when to say no – and when to say yes
When we get sick, we want to feel better right away. But that attitude too often pressures health care providers to give antibiotics when they aren’t needed – say in the case of colds and the flu – which can lead to antibiotic resistance.
“Each time we take an antibiotic, we are creating the potential for more resistance or complications,” says Beckford. She advocates a better partnership with your care provider. Ask if the antibiotic is really needed or will help. “Parents appreciate being partners and they’re eager to do the right thing. Any doctor who doesn’t welcome that approach shouldn’t be seeing your child.”
But doing the right thing means exercising restraint, particularly when researching illness and well-being for your family and following the recommended immunization schedules for children.
“The internet is a wonderful thing but it is fraught with inaccuracies,” says Beckford. “Immunizations are given to boost the immune system, so that if you get exposed to something really serious, you’ll be able to fight it.” Beckford directs her patients and their parents only to the most trustworthy, well-researched, evidence-based science websites. “Don’t waste time listening to famous people who know nothing about immunology,” she warns.
Know when to worry
Many people fear a fever, but for health care providers, a fever is a sign of trouble, not an illness itself. “A fever tells us that the immune system is being stimulated and is mounting antibodies,” she explains.
The doctor’s response to fevers, vomiting or other signs of illness should be based on the specific patient, not on general rules of thumb. For example, children under two months don’t have a mature immune system and will not be able to fight illness like a teenager. If a person isn’t acting like themselves – not eating or drinking or being lethargic, for instance – then a visit to a health care provider may be necessary, regardless of lack of other symptoms.
As kids age, they’ll become more able to battle those illnesses on their own – especially if they’ve had good examples as they grow up. “As parents, we have to build resilient children in every way – emotionally, intellectually and immunologically,” says Beckford. “Take the time to love and educate them and stay healthier yourself. Be a good role model to teach the simple stuff – how to wash their hands
, good hygiene and healthy habits.”
There’s still time to get protected! Call HAP Customer Service at the number on your ID card to see if the flu vaccine is an eligible benefit under your HAP plan.