Now that school has started up again, the cold and flu season is around the corner. Some families may be bracing themselves for the seemingly inevitable onslaught of respiratory illnesses so common this time of year.
Many families can tell a story of the season of the never-ending colds. A daughter comes home from preschool one day with the sniffles, which evolves into a full-blown cold with sore throat, runny nose, sneezing, coughing and lack of energy. Mom stays home to take care of her, and three days later develops the same symptoms. Then a son is sent home from school with a sore throat and all the other symptoms. A couple of days later, the daughter and mom are feeling better but dad is feeling miserable and has to take a couple days off from work.
Then, after a week or two of relative health, a son comes home from school with a bad cough and this respiratory infection sweeps through the household, too. This cycle can repeat itself several times over the course of a fall and winter.
Short of isolating your family from the rest of the world and its germs, is there anything you can do to reduce the chances that one sick person will infect the rest of the family?
Yes, there is, but how effective these measures will be for your family will depend on a few variables: how severe the cold and flu viruses are this year, each individual's natural resistance to infection and how vigilant you are.
Colds and the flu are respiratory infections, meaning that the viruses that cause them live in the respiratory tract: the mouth, throat, nose, sinuses and lungs. The respiratory tract produces mucus, and when someone is sick there can be amazing amounts of mucus produced.
Viruses - and bacteria as well - live in mucus, so when you are ill, you really need to be careful about keeping mucus contained so it doesn't infect others. Use disposable tissues when blowing your nose or coughing, and throw them away immediately afterward; don't leave them lying around on tabletops.
Always cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. If you sneezed or coughed into your bare hands, wash them well right away. Do other people a favor and don't shake hands in greeting when you are sick - that's a great way to pass on germs.
Don't share drinking glasses or eating utensils. Wash them in the dishwasher, or use hot water with plenty of soap between uses.
Wash dishtowels, washcloths, towels and pillowcases frequently when a member of your household is sick. Use hot water. Kitchen sponges and pot scrubbers can go into the dishwasher, or can be soaked in a bleach solution to disinfect them.
Don't share your toothbrush with others, and don't store it where it can touch other toothbrushes and spread germs. I recommend running your toothbrush through the dishwasher or sterilizing it in boiling water for 30 seconds if you have been sick, since germs can linger in damp nooks and crannies and reinfect you or others.
Most importantly: wash your hands. This is true whether you are the one who is sick or one who doesn't want to get sick. Wash them when you wake up, before you go to sleep, before you prepare food or eat, after you eat, after you blow your nose and anytime before or after you touch your mouth or nose. If you can't remember the last time you washed your hands, wash them now.
The best hand-washing technique: use warm water and plenty of soap. Special antibacterial soap is not necessary. Work up a good lather and rub your hands together for at least 20 seconds. Simply rinsing your hands under running water is useless; contact time with soap is the way to kill germs.
Kathryn B. Brown is a family nurse practitioner with a master's degree in nursing from OHSU. Is there a health topic you would like to read about? Send ideas to email@example.com. You can find more local health news and information in the Health section at www.chinookobserver.info.