Gezundheit and God Bless You: Now, please take your cold home

Armen Hareyan's picture
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It's happened to everyone who works for a living or goes to school. Someone shows up in the carpool, on the bus or at the next desk with a loud, wet cold or, even worse, the flu, and spends the next few hours sneezing, wheezing and coughing.

As you may have guessed, you're being exposed to a lot of viruses with each snuffle. Dr. Estella Whimbey, medical director of health care epidemiology and infection control for University of Washington Medical Center and the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, says the person with a cold, cough or the flu-like illness is most likely to be releasing viruses into the surrounding environment during the first few days of the illness, when the symptoms are at their worst.

"There are many different viruses that cause respiratory illnesses," Whimbey says. "Many of them can be spread by contact. It's very normal for an infected person to contaminate his or her hands. That person will touch someone else's hands or something in the environment, and the virus ends up on some other person's hands. It's also very normal for people to casually touch their own eyes, mouth or nose, introducing the virus into the mucous membranes where it can thrive."

Cold and flu viruses can also move through the air, propelled in large droplets and small airborne particles by sneezing and coughing. So, if you have a cold or the flu, how do you decide that it's time to call in sick?

"There are two reasons for a person to stay home from work," Whimbey says. "One would be for their own well-being and the other would be for the well-being of the people they come in contact with."

While you may feel the need to be at work, consider the effect your plain little cold virus could have on a very young child, an older adult, a smoker, people with underlying heart or lung problems, or people with immune system problems, such as cancer patients or transplant recipients.

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"These are people for whom a cold or flu virus can cause serious or life-threatening illnesses," Whimbey says.

If your officemate shows up dripping and coughing or sneezing, Whimbey says there are some things you can do to reduce your chances of catching the bug. First of all, strive to maintain a general state of good health and get a flu vaccination every year. Wash your hands frequently during the day, to cut down on the risk of getting the virus on your hands and transporting it to your eyes, nose or mouth. Keep as much distance as you can between yourself and the cold sufferer, and consider opening a window to increase ventilation in the office, if that's practical.

"In this day and age, I think it's appropriate to ask that co-worker to look away from other people when he or she sneezes or coughs, and to sneeze or cough into a disposable tissue, and wash their hands frequently," Whimbey says. If your colleague is sneezing and coughing a lot, she adds, it may be a good idea to diplomatically suggest that he or she take a cold medicine, both for personal symptomatic relief and to cut down on the chances of spreading the infection to others.

If you're the one with the cold, remember what your typical colds are like. If you start having unusual symptoms, like high fever, unusual headache, weakness or exhaustion, shortness of breath, chest pain, sinus or ear pain or a cough that is getting worse instead of better, don't just stay home. Go see a doctor.

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The source of this article is http://www.med.umich.edu

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