Wash your hands of flu, colds, and viruses

For all our technology, medical advances and sophisticated health resources, it often seems we’re no closer to taming the common cold, eliminating flu and infections, or reducing many common and costly chronic diseases and illnesses. In part, that’s the insidious nature of human health and the ability of diseases to transform and elude researcher’s best efforts. But often, it’s also the result of misinformation, and our unwillingness — purposely or through lack of accurate direction or failed compliance — to help ourselves through knowledge and prevention.

As the annual flu season descends, we need to protect ourselves. Flu vaccine is plentiful and often effective against specific strains of influenza, but many people still choose to not get themselves or their children vaccinated. That’s a personal decision, but it can mean that you or your kids spread illness and disease to others, including the most vulnerable — the sick, elderly and babies.

Amid heightened global concerns over Ebola, which has now reached American shores, another far more common virus has been making the rounds. This flu-like strain, called Enterovirus (EV) D68, is now afflicting people across the country, and is particularly dangerous to infants, seniors, or anyone with respiratory illnesses, asthma, or chronic, obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Strains of the Enterovirus (there are more than 100) are not new — they’ve been formally catalogued since the early 1960s — but this year’s outbreak has been more virulent than in recent years.

Most common in the summer and early fall, mild symptoms may include fever, runny nose, sneezing, cough and body and muscle aches. Sound familiar? Unfortunately, it presents like the common cold and many other viruses. Severe symptoms may include wheezing and difficulty breathing. Since Enterovirus causes respiratory illness, the virus can be found in an infected person’s respiratory secretions, such as saliva, nasal mucus, or sputum. EV-D68 spreads from person to person when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or contaminates common surfaces or objects through touch.

There is no specific treatment for people with respiratory illness caused by EV-D68, nor a vaccine to prevent it. For mild respiratory illness, you can help relieve symptoms by taking over-the-counter medications for pain and fever (aspirin should not be given to children). Some people with severe respiratory illness may need to be hospitalized — if symptoms worsen, you should see your physician.

We can help protect ourselves from Enterovirus, the flu, other viruses and colds by following these simple steps:

  • The easiest, safest, cheapest and most effective way to prevent the spread of disease or to limit infection is to wash your hands often. That includes when you come home from anywhere, before you eat in a dining hall or restaurant, after you use a restroom, visit the supermarket, ride a bus or train, or touch an ATM. And when it isn’t easy to wash your hands, use a hand sanitizer. Also, don’t share toothbrushes, razors or other personal grooming products, and avoid sharing food, drinks or eating off of one another’s plates.
  • Avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands
  • Disinfect frequently touched surfaces, such as toys and doorknobs, especially if someone is sick
  • Sneeze into tissues or your arm, not your hands and not into the air — airborne pathogens spread highly contagious viral or bacterial infections
  • Get a flu shot! Flu vaccines are very safe and can’t infect you with the flu. Injected flu vaccines only contain dead virus, and a dead virus can’t infect you. There is one type of live virus flu vaccine, the nasal vaccine, FluMist. But in this case, the virus is specially engineered to remove the parts of the virus that make people sick. The standard flu vaccine can be dangerous if you’re allergic to eggs, so you should always talk with your doctor before taking the vaccine.
  • Stay home when you’re sick; incubation time — or the days it takes for germs to turn into something truly nasty in your system — allow you to spread those germs to many other people before you even realize you’re infectious.

Additionally, remember that antibiotics won’t help you fight the flu or a cold, which are not caused by bacteria, but by a virus. Taking antibiotics unnecessarily weakens your body’s ability to fight bacterial illnesses, since many bacteria become resistant to antibiotics due to overuse and bad prescribing practices.

However, there are instances of flu complications that involve bacterial infection. The flu virus can weaken your body and allow bacterial invaders to infect you. Secondary bacterial infections due to the flu include bronchitis, ear infections, sinusitis, and most often, pneumonia. The flu doesn’t peak until February or March, and it hits all across the country, so if you haven’t had your flu shot there’s still plenty of time to protect yourself and your family.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!