[email protected]

February 22, 2013, Friday

Staying healthy during cold and flu season

It seems that the cold and flu season is now in full force at my son's school. Half of the students in his class have been out sick over the past week, and teachers are falling ill as well. Friends who teach in other cities across İstanbul have also reported a large number of absences in both the student body and the faculty due to illness.

Usually the flu season runs from November through March, and the cold season hits its peak from September through April. However, anyone can catch either illness at any time of the year. Unfortunately, children are two to three times more susceptible to coming down with a cold or flu than an adult. When one child in a school falls ill, a virus can quickly spread through the enclosed space of a school or classroom as well as by simply handling the same toys, pencils, books, cups and eating utensils.

Precautions can be taken to reduce the risk of spreading an illness. The first step, which many parents unfortunately overlook, is if your child is sick, do not send them to school. If they have symptoms of a cold or flu, it is better for them to rest at home instead of being sent to sit miserably in a classroom all day and possibly infect others around them. They can always catch up on any missed work when they are feeling better.

We all know that we need to wash our hands often throughout the day. However, for many people, especially children, simply running water over the hands is as far as the washing goes. It actually takes at least 20 seconds of washing the hands with warm water and soap for the hands to be thoroughly cleansed. An easy way to teach children just how long they should wash their hands to get them clean is to have them recite the alphabet or sing the Happy Birthday song twice. Both last just about the right amount of time.

When on public transportation, I constantly see people sneezing and coughing without covering their noses or mouths. This is one of the quickest ways to spread illness. I cringe when an obviously sick person is coughing and sneezing in public places and not bothering to try to use a tissue. Like me, my son always has a packet of tissues in his backpack not only for sniffles or coughs, but also in case of spills or accidents that need to be cleaned up. I've noticed over the past few years that more children are aware of spreading germs through coughing and some remember that if they don't have a tissue handy, they should cough into the crook of their arm to try and stop some of the spread of germs. Of course, children have a tendency to use tissues and then stuff them away in their pockets, so parents need to check to make sure used tissues are thrown away.

At home, there are many places where germs lurk that we don't even think about. High traffic areas such as walls, light switches, computer keyboards, glasses and desks should all be cleaned and disinfected often. All these areas should be wiped down frequently with a disinfectant to help stop the spread of germs. Phones, too, should be wiped down periodically.

Most people try to keep their bathrooms reasonably clean. However, what many do not realize is that, on average, the kitchen harbors many more germs that the bathroom. Kitchen sinks are the repository for meat, bones and other garbage slated for cleanup later. This results in a hotspot for bacteria growth, and a sink should be cleaned often to discourage this growth. Sponges and dishtowels are not immune, either. Both should be changed every one to two months because they harbor bacteria. Wash dishtowels every few days to cut down on problems, not just in cold and flu season, but all year.

Many people use the terms cold and flu interchangeably, but there are differences between the two illnesses. It is rare to have a fever with a cold, but with the flu, a low-grade to high fever is common. The flu is often accompanied by the sudden onset of fatigue, which is fairly uncommon with a cold. Flu sufferers may experience severe headaches and general muscle aches and pains. A runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, sore throat or cough are all common symptoms of both a cold and flu. The flu can be especially dangerous for the elderly, young children and those with suppressed immune systems. Complications from the flu can include bacterial pneumonia, ear and sinus infections and dehydration.

The flu can be passed on to others not only while a person is sick, but also before they begin to develop symptoms. Most adults are carriers for one day before they notice symptoms and for up to a week after becoming ill. Children can pass along the flu for a longer time after symptoms appear.

I doubt if any of us want to live in a sterile environment and limit contact with the outside world in an attempt to try and avoid exposure to germs and bacteria. Basically, we can take precautions as much as possible and hope for the best. In spite of some of the old wives' tales that I have been told while living in Turkey, the real reason there is an upsurge in colds and flu during the winter months is that people tend to spend more time indoors, around others who are ill. In enclosed spaces, viruses spread quickly. Getting the flu or catching a cold is not due to walking barefoot on a cold floor or walking outside without a warm hat on.

As soon as you feel ill, crawl into bed, get as much rest as you can, drink plenty of fluids and eat healthy food to help boost your energy and immune system. And please, if your child is ill, keep them home instead of sending them off to school. Other parents, classmates and teachers will appreciate it.

Send comments to [email protected]

Previous articles of the columnist