"In order to learn the most important lessons of life, one must each day surmount a fear." --Ralph Waldo Emerson, American lecturer, essayist, and poet
The flu – Suddenly it is everywhere. We read about it in the paper and see it on the news. We listen in fear to reports on how it invades our hospitals and schools, contaminating drinking fountains, public bathrooms, and restaurants. Each winter this invisible little bug returns with seemingly greater authority to disrupt our daily lives and spread paranoia throughout the community.
The fear and anxiety that accompanies seasonal influenza can also infect hospitals, chipping away at the mission for which they stand by causing patients to question a health care facility’s very ability to treat the infirm in times like these. As hospitals in Britain are forced to cancel operations and leave beds empty in preparation for anticipated flu cases, one can only hope that this patient surge in the United States does not escalate to needless panic over possible pandemic.
With today’s antibiotic-resistant germs and mutating strains, our grandparents’ “sniffles” have been replaced in the eyes of the general public by potentially fatal pandemics, bringing with them a mixture of fact and myth that baffles many of us still wondering how best to protect ourselves and our families during these winter months. Like it or not, influenza is here -- including the H1N1 strain of the common cold better known as “Swine Flu -- but everyone must remain calm. To survive another flu season, information and common sense must prevail. Indeed, the very origin of the word “pandemic” from the Greek “pan” (meaning “all”) and “demos” (meaning “people” or population”) would imply that the best way to avoid one is simply to prevent it from spreading.
In the grand scheme there is as yet no reason to let the fear of flu wreak havoc on the emotional well-being of you and your loved ones. The simple fact is that whether fighting a super-bug or a runny nose, the approach is the same: Prevention is a key element in reducing the chances of finding yourself bedridden throughout the winter. Flu season marks a distinct period where we are all duty bound to take extra precautions to keep from getting waylaid by this year’s scourge and spreading it to our families, friends, coworkers, and neighbors. By arming yourself with the facts about the flu and taking a few simple steps, you can reduce emotional stress and maintain peace of mind while keeping your family in peak physical condition this winter.
Wash Your Hands, Please
It sounds so simple, and yet it works. Repeating their age-old mantra, public health officials continue to remind us that routine hand-washing is still one of the most powerful defenses against the spread of influenza in its many forms. According to the Food and Drug Administration, proper hand-washing can prevent up to half of all food borne illnesses. Children who wash their hands at least four times per day experience 24% fewer days with colds and flu, and 51% fewer days sick from stomach ailments.
No matter how potent the germ, it cannot take hold if it is removed before infection can occur. And yet, most of us wash our hands in a cursory manner at best, which limits effectiveness. To properly protect yourself, use warm water, wet your hands and cover them with soap. Rub your hands vigorously together for at least thirty seconds, making sure to scrub all skin surfaces thoroughly. When you are finished, be sure to rinse the soap completely from your hands. Should no soap and water be available, hand sanitizers can be an effective substitute until you can reach a well-stocked sink.
Be it in the hospital or at home, it is doubly important to follow this procedure before visiting elderly loved ones, those with compromised immune systems due to illness, pregnant women, or babies. Children should likewise be taught the necessity of regular hand hygiene, both as a means to keep themselves healthy and as a lesson in consideration for others. However, be mindful not to frighten them or make them overly conscious of disease. Using a musical timer or singing a thirty-second song can turn the time at the sink into a fun and constructive, non-threatening exercise.
Don’t Fear the Needle
Even in this modern age, many of us are wary of vaccines and what they may or may not contain, and year after year many of us rely upon our excuses until it is too late. But the quick and easy act of getting a shot is an effective way to provide peace of mind and greatly improve your chances of standing tall instead of staying in bed with the chills.
Beginning in 2010, the CDC now proposes “universal annual vaccination,” recommending that everyone over the age of 6 months receive a flu shot. While the CDC recommends that everyone get an influenza vaccine each flu season, particular emphasis is placed on the following groups to get vaccinated, either because they are at high risk of having serious flu-related complications or because they live with or care for people at high risk for developing flu-related complications:
Children younger than 5, but especially children younger than 2 years old
People 50 years of age and older
People of any age with certain chronic medical conditions
People who live in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities
People who live with or care for those at high risk for complications from flu
Health care workers
Household contacts of persons at high risk for complications from the flu
Household contacts and out of home caregivers of children less than 6 months of age (these children are too young to be vaccinated)
However, there are some people who should refrain from getting a flu vaccine without first consulting a physician. These include:
People who have a severe allergy to chicken eggs
People who have had a severe reaction to an influenza vaccination
People who developed Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) within 6 weeks of getting an influenza vaccine
Children less than 6 months of age (influenza vaccine is not approved for this age group)
People who have a moderate-to-severe illness with a fever (these patients should wait until they recover to get vaccinated)
This flu season, focus on prevention and its many possible steps to reduce anxiety while improving your mental health. By fighting the fear of influenza first, hopefully you can avoid the traditional somatic symptoms altogether. As today’s germs seek new ways to outmaneuver advances in modern medicine and today’s newscasts spread fear through statistics without context, it is important to maintain perspective around the word “pandemic.” Statistically speaking, the flu claims very few lives each year, especially for those who are in otherwise good health. With a daily routine of preventive measures and a simple shot, the vast majority of Americans should have little to fear from the upcoming flu season.