From Baptist Health South Florida
4 min. read
’Tis the season when a dip in degrees leads to a reminder by our older relatives to stay inside and stay warm.
“Catching” a cold or the flu during the cooler months of winter may result from stress, our lack of nutrition and unregulated sleep, as well as the crowds we encounter while enjoying holiday traditions, says Sukhdeep Singh Rao, M.D., a Baptist Health Medical Group physician with Baptist Health Primary Care. When all these factors combine, illnesses spread quickly.
That’s why Dr. Rao suggests frequent and deliberate handwashing as the easiest line of defense. Viruses can live on common surfaces, such as doorknobs, for several hours. If you touch one of these surfaces after a sick person has – and then touch your nose, mouth or eyes – you’re likely to get sick. Dr. Rao says soap and water are best for killing viruses on your hands. To ensure effective cleansing, he advises washing for 20 seconds, about how long it takes to sing Happy Birthday. If soap and water are unavailable, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer will do the trick. Just be sure to use enough to cover the entire hand and rub the solution until it dries, usually about 15 to 20 seconds.
Dr. Rao also recommends getting the seasonal flu vaccine every year, if your doctor says it’s safe for you. In the United States, flu season typically peaks in January and can run through April, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But, Dr. Rao says it’s not too late to get the flu shot if you haven’t yet. The CDC urges parents with young children to get themselves and their children vaccinated, as well as the elderly population and pregnant women. That’s because these are the groups who are most at risk for serious complications, like pneumonia, which have resulted in death.
If the holidays mean traveling abroad, Dr. Rao suggests researching what other vaccinations are recommended in addition to the influenza vaccine before embarking on your trip. He points to the CDC’s free online resource for travelers as a valuable resource. It’s also best to speak to your doctor to be sure the vaccines will be safe for you. The CDC also regularly publishes its Yellow Book, which helps travelers know what vaccines they should get and when they should get them prior to any international trip to have the maximum protection against illnesses common to those areas.
The stress of the holidays adds risk to contracting an illness, too. “With the holiday rush, comes putting off exercise, healthy eating and sleep,” Dr. Rao said. “These things are just as important during the holidays as they are year around to keep our bodies functioning properly to avoid illness.”
He advises to follow regular exercise routines during the holidays to help minimize the health effects of added stress. And, if you don’t regularly exercise already, it might be a good time to start a healthy habit, if your doctor says it’s okay for you to do so.
He also warns against overindulging in fried, fatty, sweet or salty foods and alcoholic beverages. For people with chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease, especially, lax nutrition can have serious health consequences.
Finally, Dr. Rao urges people to try to maintain their normal sleep cycles. “Unregulated sleep cycles weaken our body’s immune response and too much sleep deprivation can impact our cognitive function and response to danger, as when we drive,” he said.
While the above tips are intended to keep you well, what happens when you do get sick while traveling?
“We often see older folks, especially, with complex medical issues seeking care in the Emergency Room, while they are away from their home and regular doctors,” he said. “It can be difficult to treat them effectively if we’re missing pieces to the puzzle when it comes to their medical history.”
For this reason, Dr. Braden recommends taking medical records, particularly for your last two hospitalizations or physicals, with you while traveling. The best records, he says, include discharge instructions, results from recent EKGs or lab work, X-rays or other imaging studies on a CD and prescription medication bottles or packaging. Also, he urges people with implanted devices, such as stents, pacemakers and artificial heart valves, to carry with them at all times the device manufacturer’s product card.
“Many patients may not remember details from their last procedure, hospital stay or doctor appointment that may be helpful for doctors and nurses in the Emergency Room to know,” he said. “And during the holidays, with doctors vacationing and their partners filling in, it may be harder for us to reach the doctor who can most accurately fill in those details on which we make our treatment decisions.”
When traveling abroad, Dr. Braden suggests taking your health insurance card with you and obtaining travel insurance that will cover the cost of transferring you back to the United States in the event you become sick or injured.
If you are treated by a physician away from home, Dr. Braden also advises to take your discharge instructions and any newly prescribed medications back to your regular doctor so he or she knows what care was provided while you were traveling.
“Emergency Room doctors are only one dot in the continuum of care, so it’s important that the doctor who regularly manages your care is aware of any changes we make to treat an acute problem,” he said.
Dr. Rao agrees and says if you do get sick while away from home, be sure to notify your doctor when returning home to help him or her determine whether you should be seen for any follow-up care.
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