Everywhere you go on campus these days, people are sniffling and sneezing. Coughs echo in the halls and tissues fill the trash cans. It is the season for respiratory illness. Have you already succumbed? If not, would you like to avoid getting sick? My guess is yes. My basic advice is quite simple; you will figure it out long before the end of this article.
By “respiratory illness” I mean anything that affects your respiratory tract. That includes your sinuses, nose, throat, bronchi and lungs. Broadly speaking, I am talking about colds, bronchitis and flu. These diseases are infections, caused mostly by viruses. There are rare cases of bronchitis caused by bacteria, but for the purposes of this discussion it doesn’t really matter anyway. We are talking about contagious diseases.
I’ll call them all “germs.”
When you have one of these infections, the germs live all along your respiratory tract in the tender tissues of the nose, throat and lungs. They also thrive in the secretions that your body produces in high volumes in an attempt to wash out these alien invaders. Secretions include saliva, nasal mucous and phlegm from the lungs.
The way by which the sickness gets passed from one person to another is what we in the business call “droplet spread.” This means an infected droplet of some kind of bodily fluid from the sick person’s respiratory tract gets into the respiratory tract of a healthy person. The portals of entry are the nose and the mouth. In other words, germs in droplets get into your nose and mouth and make you sick.
One drop of mucous can contain billions of viruses. Everyone knows that if someone coughs in your face you can get sick. What you might not know is that viruses can stay alive on smooth surfaces like doorknobs, books or faucet handles for up to eight hours.
Now I’m going to tell you a story. This is a story about Germy Jeremy. (I am not trying to be sexist; it could just as easily be Germy Jill, or Germy Gender-neutral, but I am too lazy to type “his or her” over and over.) As you read this story, see if you can track all the places Jeremy leaves his germs.
Jeremy has been sick for a few days with a raspy throat, nasal congestion and coughing. Nothing terrible, certainly not enough to keep him home in bed, but bad enough to wish he didn’t have it. Monday morning comes too soon and his alarm clock yanks him out of a restless snotty sleep. He hits the snooze several times, then finally sits up and rubs his eyes, yawning. Now it is late, too late to shower.
Jeremy dresses, brushes his teeth and splashes some water on his face, drying off with a towel. He blows his nose on a tissue, drops the tissue in the trash and picks up his books. Stuffing them into his backpack, he coughs, then wipes his wet mouth with his hand and heads out the door.
Arriving at the classroom, he coughs again, remembering to cover his mouth with his hand. He opens the door, makes his way to a desk and sits down, rubbing his itching nose. The teacher passes a stack of handouts to the student in front, who takes one and passes them along. As the stack reaches Jeremy, he sneezes, takes one and passes the stack to the next student.
After class, he goes to the SUB for lunch. While he is standing in line, he blows his nose on a napkin, sneezes on his money, and coughs into his hand again before choosing a fork from the bunch in the dispenser.
Starting to get the picture? I don’t know about you, but I have just about lost track. This guy is leaving germs everywhere, including places you might not be able to avoid touching. So what are you supposed to do? Become a hermit? Live in a bubble?
Remember that I said your entry portals are your nose and mouth.
So far I haven’t seen Jeremy leave germs anywhere that you have to touch with your nose or mouth. But germs live on surfaces, and Jeremy has touched a lot of surfaces. You have probably touched some of them, too. You had to open the door after him, or take the handout, or accept his money if you work at the SUB. So now you have Jeremy’s germs on your hands. How can you keep those germs from getting to your nose and mouth?
I told you it was simple.
If you can keep your hands off of your face, you will drastically reduce your chances of getting sick. Don’t rub your eyes, scratch your nose or wipe your mouth with your hand. Don’t lean your cheek on your hand in class, or stroke your beard or pick your nose. Don’t cough into your own hand; instead, do the Dracula cough — into the crook of your elbow. Don’t touch your face at all unless you wash or sanitize your hands first.
I know it sounds weird to think of your own hands as hazards, but that is what they are when you are surrounded by germs. Use your hands as you necessarily must, and appreciate them for all they do, but keep them away from your fine furry face and you will stay healthier.
Dr. Peggy Spencer is a physician at Student Health and Counseling. She is also co-author of the book “50 Ways to Leave Your 40s.” Email your questions directly to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. All questions will be considered, and all questioners will remain anonymous.