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Staying Healthy During the Holidays

December 11, 2019

As 2019 draws to an end, many people will gather to celebrate and to spend time with each other. Whether it’s an office party, a family gathering, or a New Year’s Eve bash, this time with others can be a lot of fun, producing many memories and stories to be retold over the years. But there’s a bit of a dark side to holiday season. Exposure to more people than usual can increase your chances of becoming ill. So during this holiday season, spending some time to take extra precautions may help keep you from catching someone else’s illness or if you’re ill, preventing the spread to others.

The Flu and Colds

Holiday season in North America coincides with cold and flu season. Everyone catches a cold from time to time and for most people, a cold causes a week or so of feeling miserable: stuffy nose, headache, cough, and more, and then it goes away. The cough associated with a cold can last for a while longer, sometimes weeks if it’s a particularly nasty one. However, there are some people who can become seriously ill if they catch a cold. The virus can make them vulnerable to developing other illnesses, like bronchitis or even pneumonia, particularly among the very old, very young, or those who have weakened immune systems or chronic illnesses. Pneumonia is the most common cause of sepsis and septic shock, according to the American Thoracic Society. Learn more about sepsis and pneumonia here.

Influenza, the flu, is another easily spread virus in close quarters. The flu is not a gastrointestinal illness; there’s no such thing as the stomach flu. Influenza is a serious respiratory infection. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), depending on the flu season, between 9.3 million and 49 million people in the U.S. are affected each year, with 140,000 and 960,000 flu-related hospitalizations, and up to 79,000 deaths each year. You can learn about how influenza is spread and how it can lead to sepsis by reading Sepsis and Influenza.

Gastroenteritis

Gastroenteritis is an illness often mistakenly referred to as a “stomach flu.” Gastro, as it’s called for short, occurs when a viral or bacterial infection irritates and inflames the gastrointestinal lining, resulting in nausea, vomiting, cramping, stomach pain, fever, and diarrhea. The infection is spread either through direct contact with someone who is already ill, through touching objects that have the bacteria or virus on it, or through contaminated food or drink. Because of the many ways it can be spread, it’s particularly important to be vigilant when you’re at a large gathering. According to a study published in 2011, there are about 179 million cases of gastro each year in the U.S. The CDC reported the next year that the number of people in the U.S. who died from gastroenteritis more than doubled from 1999 to 2007, from 7,000 to more than 17,000 per year. The most common causes of the condition were infection with C. difficile and norovirus, although there are many other viruses and bacteria that can cause it. Learn more about sepsis and c. difficile here.

With all that surrounds the holidays, this time can be stressful as it can be joyful. You can reduce some of the stress and your risk of becoming ill by following some simple steps:

  • Wash your hands. Very simple, but effective. Wash your hands thoroughly when coming in from outside, after using the toilet, before and after handling food, and whenever they seem dirty. If you don’t have access to soap and water, a waterless hand sanitizer will work. Just make sure to rub it into your hands as thoroughly as you would wash with soap and water.
  • If you are hosting a gathering, ensure that cold food is kept cold and hot food hot. The CDC recommends that perishable foods not be left out of the fridge for more than two hours. Avoid cross contamination while preparing foods too, which means keeping areas where you prepared raw eat and other perishable items away from eating surfaces and other foods that could become contaminated.
  • Get the seasonal flu vaccine unless you can’t for medical reasons. It takes up to two weeks for the vaccine to be the most effective, so the sooner you get it this holiday season, the better.
  • Finally, as disappointing as it is, stay away from gatherings if you are ill. It’s not worth the risk of spreading the illness to someone who may not be able to adequately fight it off.

If you do come down with an infection or illness over the holidays or any other time, be sure to take care of yourself and see a doctor if you suspect an infection. And watch for signs of sepsis!