By: Beth Sufian
In the past month, many newspapers have reported that large numbers of people in the United States have fallen ill from widespread flu in every state except Hawaii. People with CF are especially vulnerable to flu and other viruses that pop up in winter. People spend more time indoors so it is easier for flu and viruses to spread. I remember one of the first articles I read in CF Roundtable was by Joe Kowalski one of the founders of CF Roundtable. He wrote about being a hermit during winter and how it reduced his incidence of getting sick. I thought it was an interesting idea and after 18 years of doing a similar thing in winter, I thought I would share my strategies.
Here is a list of the top 10 things I do to try and reduce the likelihood of getting sick in winter. I know some people are already anxious about getting sick and this blog post is not meant to increase anxiety. My hope is that one or more of these strategies may help some of you stay healthy during the winter.
Please share any effective strategies you use in the comments section below
1.Take Your Own Pen On your next trip to the store watch as people take the pen at the checkout and sneeze or cough right on the pen. When you go to the store, doctor’s office or any other public place where you may need to sign something bring your own pen. It is easy to find pens with a stylus cap to use in stores that use a screen for signatures.
2. Take a Small Bottle of Hand Gel and a N-95 Mask If you find you have touched a surface that has been used by many like a door handle then make sure you have a bottle of hand sanitizer so that you can clean your hands. In addition, keep a N-95 mask in your purse or backpack. If you find yourself in a space with a person or many people who are coughing or sneezing you can quickly put on the mask. If you feel self-conscious about wearing a mask just remember the last time you were sick and that should put those thoughts to the back of your mind.
3. Wear Gloves Wearing gloves can help you avoid germs when out in public. While it is advised you should not shake hands with people this is a hard habit to break. Wearing gloves allows you to shake hands and lower the risk of passing germs to yourself. However, you need to make sure you wash the gloves frequently.
4. Step up your Treatments It is hard to avoid sick people if you work in an office or in a job that exposes you to the public so it is important to make sure you are doing your daily CF treatments. In a perfect world, everyone with CF would do all the breathing treatments prescribed each day without missing any doses. In reality, things get in the way. Most people with CF tell me they normally skip a lot of treatments each week. During winter it is important to reduce the number of missed treatments. Medicine cannot work if it stays in the bottle. People with CF often say “I do not have time to do my treatments”. I think the opposite, I do not have time to get sick so I must make time to do my treatments. If you are working in an office or going to school it is hard to avoid people who are sick but taking good care of yourself can reduce the chance of catching a winter bug. Also, make sure you go for quarterly CF Care Center visits so that your CF Care team can monitor your health.
To make treatment time more enjoyable find something you really like to do and do it during treatment time. If possible make that the main time you do the activity. For example, if you like watching movies or playing video games make treatment time the time you watch movies or play games. It takes discipline but can really help decrease missed treatments. Listening to music while doing treatments also helps to reduce the noise of the machines and can make treatment time relaxing. Some people meditate while doing treatments and report it has a calming effect.
5. Avoid Crowds/ Avoid Sick Visitors In the late 1990’s I was on and off IV’s many times due to illness. I realized that often I finished a round of IV’s and would then go to a party or a big meeting and would be sick within 3 days. When I started restricting my contact with sick people during winter and beyond my own incidence of illness decreased. My close friends know they should cancel a lunch date with me if they think they may be sick or someone in their house is sick. I still go out to lunch with friends but in winter I avoid big gatherings. For example, if my daughter’s school is having a meeting of parents I make sure I sit toward the front or back (depending on the room) on the side and not in the middle of the group. But if I know the meeting will be in a small room with the potential of having a lot of people in attendance I send my husband to the meeting and stay home.
6. Exercise at Home For me, going to a public gym or exercise class during winter makes me nervous. I used to attend a yoga class that I enjoyed. During the winter months half the class was sneezing and coughing and I decided that was not a good place for me to be exercising. The same thing happened at a local gym. Now I use yoga videos and step up the number of times I walk my dog. I know in some places it is too cold to walk outside. If you have to go to an indoor gym try to go at an off time.
7. Shop at Off Times Once winter starts I become very disciplined about when I shop. I love a certain grocery store in Houston that has beautiful food but it can be mobbed on the weekend and at lunchtime. The other day I drove to the grocery store at 11 am but saw the parking lot was full. I was tempted to just “run in” because I had driven there and needed a few things. But I turned the car around and headed home. I find that when the store first opens at 8 am there are very few shoppers so that is the best time for me to go. If you work or go to school and this is not possible see if someone else can get things for you. Some stores now have a way for you to order things online and then pick up the bagged items at the store. This fairly new service can be very helpful to people with CF.
8. No Airplane Travel In the late 1990’s I was still traveling in winter. I would finish a course of IV’s and feel good and then a week later I would board an airplane and head to a work meeting, wedding or family event. Within 3 days of returning from the trip, I would be sick and back on IV’s. After 3 winters of this cycle of IV’s, travel and getting sick again I realized there was a direct correlation between my travel and getting sick.
My solution was to impose winter travel restrictions. I do not fly on an airplane in January and February unless I need to travel for medical care. This year I think I will extend my rule to mid- March given the widespread flu activity and what looks like extended cold weather in many places. I have been restricting airplane travel since 2000 and have seen great results in terms of my health. Also by having an absolute rule, no one feels slighted if I miss their wedding or event. I do wear an N-95 mask when I fly on a plane in other months. However, I found when I traveled in winter when I got to my destination (especially if the place had cold weather) I still got sick because I came into contact with a lot of sick people.
I travel a lot the rest of the year so having 2 months at home is a treat. I just cleaned out 28 years of boxes that have accumulated in my attic. February my goal is to clean and organize my closets. In Houston where so many lost everything in Hurricane Harvey, it feels good to send things I do not use to those who need help.
9. Rest I have come to the conclusion based on conversions with thousands of people with CF that people with CF do not enough sleep. For those who work or go to school, there is always a shortage of time as a person tries to do breathing treatments in the morning and night and fit in work and school (or the other way around). Those who are not attending work or school may find they have interrupted sleep due to coughing, low blood sugar or other health issues which results in exhaustion in the morning. A decline in health also brings with it the need for more sleep. Sleep is extremely important and helps your body fight off viruses, the flu, and other bugs. While it seems rare for most CF physicians to talk about the need for sleep it is very important and can really improve health and reduce the chance of getting sick.
10. Stay Connected In Joe Kowalski’s day there was no Internet, Facebook or Twitter. Talking on the phone was the way he stayed connected to friends and family during winter. I make plans to speak to friends or to meet them for coffee or lunch when they feel well. I also like to plan fun things to do in the spring and summer while I am in my winter cocoon. I may have to pass up going to a party or an event in winter but I have found the reward of not being sick is worth it. I look forward to reading of the strategies CF Roundtable Readers use to avoid winter bugs.