Tips on staying healthy from health-care workers

Don't forget fluids, such as won-ton soup.
Don't forget fluids, such as won-ton soup. (Hands, Vaccine And Soup Photos From Bigstockphoto)
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By Kathleen Hom
Thursday, October 29, 2009

"In our environment, we're exposed to communicable diseases every day," says Martin Brown, medical director of Inova Alexandria Hospital's emergency room. Amid coughing, sneezing and ailing patients, hospital workers fight an uphill battle to keep themselves free of colds and flu. And so they are just the ones to turn to for advice on staying healthy.

WASH YOUR HANDS Health-care professionals are fanatical about sanitizing their hands, says Laura Anderko, a nurse and associate professor at Georgetown University School of Nursing & Health Studies. Brown says he washes his hands hundreds of times a day: after seeing patients, using the keyboard, touching the telephone and before meals, and on and on.

To ensure she washes her hands long enough, Anderko sings the "Happy Birthday" song, making a point to lather up her thumbs; Brown keeps an eye on a clock to guarantee that he washes for at least a minute.

Geeta Nayyar, an assistant clinical professor of medicine at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, carries hand sanitizer in her purse for times when she can't access soap and water.

CLEAN SURFACES Johns Hopkins Hospital nurse Stacey Rotman routinely uses Lysol wipes to clean doorknobs and computers, and she wipes counters with bleach. She says her husband "rolls his eyes" at her cleaning regimen, "but he knows I'm not anal. And when he does get sick, I'm like, 'You didn't wash your hands long enough!' "

GET VACCINATED Don't let a busy schedule keep you from this task. It's easier to get vaccinated against the flu than in years past, says Peter Lavine, an orthopedic surgeon and president of the Medical Society of the District of Columbia. "Now you see it given everywhere: at supermarkets, CVS, country clubs," he says.

DRINK FLUIDS When physicians and nurses do get sick, drinking more fluids than usual is a big concern. "I drink anything that's hot and has a lot of liquid, like won-ton soup," Nayyar says. "You lose your appetite generally when you're sick. You have fluid loss, and you get dehydrated."

TAKE SOMETHING WHEN SICK When Anderko came down with a cold recently, she immediately took zinc lozenges, which may help decrease the duration and severity of colds, and ate oranges to bulk up on Vitamin C. "I have a bowl of oranges in the office. I was eating them nonstop when I thought I was coming down with something," she says. Rotman swears by Airborne, a combination of vitamins, herbs and minerals. Says Lavine: "I'm personally very aggressive if I get the flu. . . . I start immediately on an antihistamine, decongestant, Tylenol . . . [to] avoid chest congestion and deep chest coughs."

STOCK YOUR MEDICINE CABINET Our experts gravitate toward Vicks VapoRub, Tylenol, DayQuil, NyQuil, Mucinex (or the generic versions of these) and herbal remedies. Anderko learned at nursing school that it's helpful to gargle with a little baking soda and warm water to alleviate swelling from a sore throat.

Even if your medicine cabinet is brimming with drugs, make sure you take only what your symptoms call for, Anderko says. And sometimes it's okay to lay off the meds. The common cold doesn't last very long, says Brown, so "it's hard to tell when you're just getting better [on your own] or the medications are working."

DEVELOP HEALTHFUL HABITS Ultimately, people need to be aware of their body and take care of themselves every day by getting enough rest, taking catnaps when appropriate, eating a balanced diet and exercising regularly. "There's no magic," Nayyar says. "It's just a matter of common sense."

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