when to worry about a cough

By John Goldman, MD

Well, it’s official. Cold and flu season is officially here! We sure hope you’ve been able to keep yourself healthy so far. It’s a long season, so I’m here to help you prepare yourself for the brunt of it, still to come our way. The best way to get over the cold or flu is to never get sick in the first place!  How on earth do you do that, you ask? Well, it’s easy and hard, all at the same time. Oh, and much of what our moms taught us was right on…they’re almost always right, after all!

WASH YOUR HANDS! Yes, I did yell it at you. I cannot underscore enough how important it is to wash your hands, so I’ll say it again. Wash your hands. Wash them after a trip to the grocery store, gas pump, religious service, doctor’s office (especially there!), work, school…. Do you get a sense that I want you to wash your hands a lot? Well, yes, I do. It is the single best means to prevent the spread of germs. That includes the cold, flu, stomach “bugs” and various other contagious creatures. We cannot protect ourselves from catching an “airborne” illness (more to come on that, keep reading) but we can protect ourselves from literally “catching” it in our hands. Perhaps that is where that term came from? So wash your hands.

Cover your cough. It is harder to keep from getting what we call an “airborne” illnesses. These are defined as something that when put out in the air (like from talking or coughing or sneezing) lingers like little droplets in the air. Think of the mist you see after spraying your cologne/perfume or those room deodorizers. The bacteria and viruses we blow out of our noses and mouths linger like that, for a longer period of time than those sprays. This malicious mist can as far as 3 feet away! The droplets settle onto surfaces (think…telephone, keyboard, doorknobs) and we pick them up with our hands (remember…wash your hands!).

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The time they linger in the air is prime-time for spread to others. While we cannot keep that mist from getting into our noses/mouths, we can at least keep the mist from ever getting there in the first place.  That’s why I advise you to cover your cough. It keeps the particles from being spread among your family, friends, coworkers, and classmates. It’s just a nice thing to do. Here’s the catch. Don’t cover it with your hand. That will just spread it in a different way. Cover your mouth/nose with the bend in your arm…think of grabbing your left ear with your right hand…that brings your elbow crease to your mouth causing that to get coated in germs instead of your hand. I can’t think of anyone who uses that part of their body to touch things on a regular basis. Do this when you cough or sneeze, every time, and take a moment to teach your children this trick as well.

Be good to yourself. I know this one is a hard one to do and there are many excuses as to why we don’t do this but treat ourselves well. Eat balanced, healthy, wholesome foods that are not filled with preservatives. The antioxidants in food are destroyed by the processing of food. We need those antioxidants to help us from getting sick. Eat a variety of colors in your diet and eat regularly throughout the day. If your body is trying not to starve, it won’t pay much attention to the virus or bacteria that are trying to invade your body. Also, sleep well. Get the optimum number of hours of sleep that you need. Everyone is different, so I won’t preach for you to get eight hours. Some can do fewer, some need more. Children are some who need more (if your child has to be dragged out of bed in the morning, perhaps an earlier bedtime is in order?).

If we don’t get enough time asleep to rest and recharge, the body has an increased amount of stress hormones. While back in the days of cavemen those hormones kept us alive running from saber-tooth tigers, the stress of our lives now is not that significant. However, these hormones keep your body on high alert, thinking something big is coming to get us. The thing is, that big thing is not looming over our shoulders with sharp fangs. Sleeping is the one time of the day that we are supposed to relax and let go. When that doesn’t happen, the body is worried more about that tiger than the virus or bacteria trying to make its way into your system. The body has a very eloquent method of protecting itself and if we let that work, it can do wonders.

Vaccinate whenever possible. When we can amplify the body’s natural immunity with vaccinations that is even better so if you haven’t yet called your PinnacleHealth Medical Group office to get yourself vaccinated against the flu yet, there’s still time and supply available. Some people also need vaccines against Streptococcus Pneumoniae (pneumonia vaccine): diabetics, people with lung disease (including asthma), and those without spleens. If you are one of those people, talk to your provider about what other vaccines you may need as well.

od luck with getting through this cold season. With some preparation, hand washing, and TLC, this should be very manageable. If, despite your best efforts, you do get sick, call your primary care provider to schedule an appointment. If you don’t have a primary care provider and need one visit pinnaclehealth.org/phmg or call (717) 231-8900 for more information on primary care services at PinnacleHealth. Can’t get in with your primary care provider right away? You can also stop by one of our FastCare Clinics or Express locations to get the flu shot. No appointment needed!

Have you gotten your flu shot yet? If not please contact your primary care physician to schedule an appointment.

About UPMC Harrisburg

UPMC Harrisburg is a nationally recognized leader in providing high-quality, patient-centered health care services in south central PA. and surrounding rural communities. UPMC Harrisburg includes seven acute care hospitals and over 160 outpatient clinics and ancillary facilities serving Dauphin, Cumberland, Perry, York, Lancaster, Lebanon, Juniata, Franklin, Adams, and parts of Snyder counties. These locations care for more than 1.2 million area residents yearly, providing life-saving emergency care, essential primary care, and leading-edge diagnostic services. Its cardiovascular program is nationally recognized for its innovation and quality. It also leads the region with its cancer, neurology, transplant, obstetrics-gynecology, maternity care, and orthopaedic programs.

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