Nursing is a very rewarding occupation. However, nurses are at high risk of catching viral illnesses, such as colds and flu, because of their continuous exposure to infected patients. These infectious diseases are spread widely throughout our communities. particularly during the winter months.
This year there is an added risk, the novel coronavirus, Covid-19. It is already on the verge of achieving pandemic spread throughout the world despite only being identified in Wuhan, China at the beginning of 2020.
Covid19 appears to spread as easily as flu. But unlike many other viral illnesses, it seems capable of being transmitted by asymptomatic people. This article will not dive into the epidemiology, diagnosis or treatment of any of these viral diseases. Rather we refer you to the CDC.gov website for the latest updates.
That being said, thankfully, there are plenty of simple lifestyle changes that can be made to help people stay healthy during the time frame when viral illnesses are dominating our thoughts.
Get enough sleep
It can be hard to get enough sleep when you’re working 12-hour shifts and have a home or a family to take care of when you get home, but getting a sufficient amount of sleep is actually essential in staying healthy.
Research has shown that your T-cells are reduced when you are sleep-deprived. This makes it easier for a cold or flu virus to take hold. It also makes it more difficult for your body to fight off these infections if you do get sick.
It even puts you at a higher risk of dying from heart disease in the long run. On average, you should try to get a minimum of 6-7 hours of sleep every night.
In addition to the damage to your immune system, not getting enough sleep can slow down your reaction times and make it harder to care for patients, potentially increasing the risk for contamination, needle sticks, and other injuries.
Studies have shown that not getting enough sleep is the equivalent of a high alcohol level—24 hours without sleep is the equivalent of 0.1% blood alcohol level. While this might not directly result in a doctor or nurse becoming ill, the slowed reaction time could result in an infection.
They say you are what you eat, so eating junk is definitely not a good thing for your immune system. You don’t need to change your entire diet but you can help to improve your immune systems by eating a little better. There are also some foods that help to bolster your immune system. Garlic, for example, has been shown to produce an immune response to strengthen your own immune system.
Peppers have high levels of vitamin C which is essential for a healthy immune system and poultry, specifically chicken soup, can help you recover from illness more quickly. That’s not an old wives tale—hot chicken soup is actually good for you when you’re sick.
We should all be getting more exercise—most professionals recommend at least 30 minutes of cardio every day to keep your heart and body healthy—but did you know that it also has an effect on your immune system?
Exercise helps to strengthen your immune system, as long as you’re not overdoing it. When tested in mice, researchers found that moderate exercise helped to reduce the effects and fatality rate of the flu in the infected mice. Excessive exercise, on the other hand, actually made the effects of the virus worse.
Don’t overdo it, but make sure that you’re getting at least 20-30 minutes of exercise a day. Moderate exercise is important. If you don’t have the time to get to the gym, try to incorporate moderate cardio exercise into your daily routine. Park further away and walk to work, or take the stairs instead of the elevator.
Get your flu shot
Getting your flu shot might seem like a hassle since you have to get a new one every single year, but it is your first line of defense against the constantly changing flu viruses.
They’re often marketed to the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, but they are also essential for nurses and anyone in the medical field. You don’t want to catch the flu, obviously, but you also don’t want to spread the flu virus to your patients if you do get sick.
If your workplace doesn’t provide flu shots, you can usually get one at your local grocery store pharmacy; the goal is to make them as accessible as possible after all, so they’re not terribly hard to find.
Wash your hands
We all wash our hands after we use the restroom or handle raw food. But you should be washing your hands much more often, especially during cold and flu season. It is even more important in the age of coronavirus (COVID19) as there is no vaccine nor curative treatment.
Even if you’re not using antibacterial soap, washing your hands with hot water and soap cuts down on the bacteria and viruses that you can possibly transmit to other people or surfaces.
According to the CDC, washing your hands reduces your risk of catching a respiratory illness like a cold or flu by up to 21%. It is probably true for COVID as well.
Staying home when you’re sick isn’t always an option. This is especially true if you are in a demanding job like nursing.
When it comes down to it, it can be the best way to recover and keep others from getting sick at the same time. When should you stay home?
- Your illness is contagious. If you’re in the beginning of your illness, you’re more likely to be contagious and should probably stay home for a while.
- Your job isn’t “sick friendly”. If you can’t wash your hands frequently or are constantly in contact with the public, it might be a good idea to stay home. If you work in a strenuous position, or are outdoors frequently, coming to work might make you feel worse.
- Your medications make it unsafe to work. If your cold medicine makes you fuzzy-headed or interferes with your ability to work, stay home.
It’s not always an option, we know, but if you’re truly feeling under the weather, your best option is to stay home.
The bottom line
It doesn’t take much to catch a cold or flu or other viruses, such as the recently circulating novel coronavirus. However, there are plenty of things that you can do to bolster your immune system and make it harder for the infection to get a foothold.
You don’t even have to wait for cold or flu season to start these steps. In fact, we don’t yet know if COVID19 will have a season. So, from a practical point of view, the sooner you start preparing, the sooner you’ll be ready for those inevitable viruses that crop up every single year.
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This post was first published on January 11, 2018. It was reviewed and updated for republication on March 4, 2020.