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Is a winter illness inevitable?
Avoid the crud

Date published: 1/4/2009

LET ME GUESS you are sniffling, cough- ing, have a sore throat and ache all over? Join the club! We have arrived, again, at the dreaded cold and flu season. But please, before you run out and buy the latest elixir guaranteed to prevent infections, read this.

The human body, on a daily basis and year-round, is under near constant assault from the microbes in our environment. Bacteria and viruses are looking for a couch to crash on, while you are wishing the freeloader would choose someone else's place. The primary reason infections pick up this time of year is that the cold weather forces us to be in closer proximity to one another.

So, how can we avoid picking up an unwanted infection?

MEANS OF TRANSMISSION

Most bacteria and viruses are spread through bodily fluids. They are not--I repeat not--waiting for you if you forget to wear your coat outside, or get caught in the rain. You will not become deathly ill if someone who happens to be sick breathes on you.

In sequence, here is how germs are spread: You wipe your nose, and your snot is teeming with viruses ready to crash someplace new. Then you touch a doorknob, or the coffee pot--or worse, you shake the hand of someone you pretend to care about. Voilà! You have helped spread your cold, or sinus infection, or bronchitis to someone else.

Mind you, different infections are transmitted through different mechanisms. Airborne illnesses are quite rare--smallpox being a devastating example. Viruses such as HIV and hepatitis B are transmitted through both blood and sexual contact.

But the cold and influenza viruses are spread through contact with respiratory secretions, aka boogers.

YOUR HANDS

The most effective means of preventing transmission is washing your hands. If you have an infection, you can steer clear of giving it to someone else by washing your hands. And if you are not currently a phlegm factory, you can avoid becoming one by hand-washing, too--the right way.

Hand-washing should take almost one minute, with hot water and lathered soap. A quick rinse will not cut it!

As an alternative to soap and water, there has been an explosion of antibacterial products on the market. Antibacterial soaps contain topical antibiotics.


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Your mom does know best when you catch a cold: Consume hot soup and tea to provide needed humidity to your upper respiratory tract, and indulge yourself in a hot shower every day. Get plenty of rest and drink plenty of fluids. And unless you have uncontrolled high blood pressure, take some over-the-counter decongestants. Analgesics such as Tylenol are safe as well, and will decrease fevers. It is usually time to see a doc if you have shortness of breath or wheezing with a cough; a very high fever; or a chronic illness such as heart disease. Call your doctor's nurse for an opinion if you're wondering whether to come in.