What do I do now?
By Kirsten Falcone, RN
Hilbert College Wellness Center
Are you feeling sick, even though you may have followed all the precautions for avoiding illness? You are not alone. Many people are coming down with something this year. In fact, it is one of the worst flu seasons on record. So, here is a list of some actions you can take, now that you may be sick.
Do not assume you are sick, if you have only one symptom.
If you have only one symptom, you might not really be sick, or you may be able to shorten your illness. For example, if you have a sore throat, do not give into the temptation of thinking you are getting sick. Sometimes you will come down with something. However, if you are vigilant about taking care of yourself (e.g. brushing your teeth, drinking plenty of water, sleeping, washing hands, eating healthfully, exercising, etc.), a sore throat may be the only symptom you will experience.
Stay home, and keep your distance from people who live with you.
On the other hand, if you have a fever or cannot contain your coughs and sneezes, just stay home. As you know, there are countless immunocompromised people in the world (the elderly, the very young, pregnant women, and people with certain illnesses), and you would not want to be responsible for passing a deadly virus to them! The CDC recommends staying home for 24 hours or more after your fever “breaks” or ends.
Stay home also to avoid infecting classmates. Professors are usually sympathetic toward students who call or email them beforehand when they will miss because of illness. (If you need an excuse note, come and see me, the Hilbert Wellness Center nurse, on duty Monday through Friday from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. in the back of St. Joseph Hall.)
Keep up with your hygiene.
Proper hygiene will help keep germs from multiplying. Brush your teeth and tongue two to three times per day (when you wake up in the morning, after meals, and before bed). Brushing after vomiting is essential to protect your enamel from stomach acid. Brushing your teeth helps you feel better, but it also helps prevent the spread of your illness into your lower respiratory tract. Floss once per day.
Keep clean. Wash your hands often. It is the best way to avoid getting sick! Do not touch your face, nose, ears, eyes, or mouth, with soiled hands. Conversely, do not touch your face with clean hands and forget to wash your hands afterward. Take a warm bath or shower regularly; the moist air will help to clear your sinuses and lungs, and it will help you feel relaxed enough to try to sleep it off.
Keep hydrated (i.e. drink water!)
Since water is responsible for so many functions in our body, and our bodies are at least 60 to 70 percent water, it is crucial to keep hydrated. Try to drink at least 64 to 96 ounces (or more) per day or the equivalent of four to six 16-ounce bottles of water, or eight to 12 8-ounce glasses of water. Another way to measure is to drink 50 to 100 percent of your weight number in ounces. For example, if you weigh 150 lbs., drink 75 to 150 ounces of water every day. Keeping a bottle of water with you throughout the day is a great habit to adopt! Refill it, as needed.
If you are feeling nauseous, I recommend sipping tepid (room temperature) water. If you try to drink cold water, it could shock your stomach, causing more vomiting. Alternatives to water include unsweetened tea, ginger ale, and Gatorade. (Just remember that anything with sugar in it will require you to brush your teeth.)
Go to bed, and sleep!
Sleeping 7 to 9 hours every night is important. Here are some reasons. While you sleep, your brain is forming pathways for learning and storing memories. Your body is building up its immune system and healing damage caused throughout the day. Hormones called cytokines, which are produced during the night, are crucial for your immune system to fight infection and inflammation. During the day, a compound called adenosine is built up, and it is only broken down again by getting enough sleep. If you miss a few nights of sound sleep, the adenosine will build up and cause sleepiness during the day. Another substance, a hormone called melatonin, makes you naturally feel sleepy at night, but that can be reversed to daytime sleepiness, if you do not fulfill your nighttime sleep requirements.
Lacking sleep undoubtedly compromises college students’ immune systems. When you are sick, it is important to listen to your body, and sleep as much as possible—even during the day.
Track your temperature.
An elevated temperature is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, a fever will actually kill off many of the invading microorganisms. The problem comes in when your body overcompensates and starts killing brain cells. It is helpful to know that letting your fever rise is usually okay. According to Mayo Clinic, adults can withstand temperatures up to 103 degrees. (It is a good idea to obtain an oral thermometer as part of your personal first aid kit, but the Wellness Center nurse can also take your temperature, if needed.)
For a fever higher than 103 degrees, call your doctor. He or she may guide you through steps to reduce your fever, such as using cold compresses, taking a tepid bath or shower, or taking an antipyretic medication (one that helps lower your temperature). (Common antipyretics include aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and naproxen.) If none of these measures works, the doctor may direct you to visit a local emergency room. However, remember that many illnesses thrive in emergency rooms, and you should use that as a last resort!
Remember to stay in bed, or away from people, for an additional 24 hours after your fever has subsided. A normal temperature is around 98.6 degrees.
Medicines to take
Guidelines for over-the-counter (OTC) medicines vary according to the symptoms you are having and whether you have any problems tolerating them. Some should be taken with food (such as ibuprofen). Others (such as acetaminophen) can easily be overdosed because they are contained within many different products. Always read the label before taking any medication.
If you have just contracted the flu within the last couple of days, you could be a good candidate for some antiviral medication. However, these medications are less effective after three days or more.
(Note: Antibiotics will not work with the flu virus, since they kill bacteria, not viruses. Never accept a prescription for an antibiotic unless you have been diagnosed with a bacterial-related illness.)
When to call the doctor
Chances are your illness will run its course in a few days to a week or two. According to the Mayo Clinic, call the doctor when your fever climbs higher than 103, and is accompanied by:
- Severe headache
- Unusual skin rash that is rapidly worsening
- Unusual sensitivity to bright light
- Stiff neck and pain when turning your neck
- Mental confusion
- Vomiting more than a couple of times
- Difficulty breathing or chest pain
- Abdominal pain or pain during urination
- Convulsions or seizures
As previously stated, sip tepid water. Do not force yourself to eat full meals, especially on the first day. Instead, eat as much as you are comfortable eating. Do not stuff yourself. It is even okay to skip a meal or two to let your stomach settle down. Once you are able to handle food again, go easy. Avoid spicy, fatty foods, and opt for the “BRAT” diet. The BRAT diet is an acronym that stands for bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast. These are all bland-tasting foods, and that is the idea. Stick to foods that have little or no flavor.
Clean and disinfect.
When you are finally out of the woods, a good idea is to clean and disinfect, so others do not catch what you are sharing!
- Clean. First, wash surfaces with an appropriate cleaner and warm water, to remove dirt and grime. Use paper towels or washable rags. Always disinfect rags or sponges before reusing them, or toss them out. Dust, open windows to ventilate, and open the window coverings to let in the daylight.
- Disinfect. After cleaning, use a germ-killing solution, such as a bleach or vinegar solution, to sanitize surfaces, such as doorknobs and handles, countertops where food is prepared, faucets, and anything that is handled frequently. Remember to also disinfect your bathroom.
- Do not share personal care tools (e.g. toothbrush, nail clipper, comb, towels, glasses, cups, utensils).
- Trash: To reduce odors and discourage the spread of germs, take out the trash.
For more information, follow these links:
Hilbert College Wellness Center:
“Steps for Avoiding the Flu,” (https://community.hilbert.edu/2018/01/22/steps-for-avoiding-the-flu/
Mayo Clinic, Information on Fevers: