Strep, mono, and the flu, oh my! How to avoid the college cough

By Erica Quinones

The fall season often brings illness with it. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the mingling of new students in tight, shared spaces, and the oncoming influenza season often led to increased illness.

However, a tradition of runny noses and bad coughs doesn’t mean that it is inevitable. Through some basic hygiene and thoughtful habits, students can stave off illness and keep their fall semesters rolling.

The Basics:

If the rule appears on a doctor’s office sign, it fits in this section. Wash your hands; don’t touch your face; and clean high-touch areas.

These three rules are the basics for a reason: they are core tenants of healthiness.

Washing your hands frequently with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds removes any germs or viruses that you may pick up throughout the day, according to Intermountain Health Care.

This easy step keeps you from transferring germs from the world around you into your body and to other people, especially when coupled with the second pillar: don’t touch your face.

While touching our faces seems to be a near constant, the action can significantly increase the risk of infection from influenza or cold viruses, according to Healthline.

The mouth and eyes are areas through which viruses can easily enter the body, and touching them with your fingers or hands is an easy way of transferring the germs you’ve picked up directly into your body, according to Healthline.

Last, but not least, in this trio of staples is wiping down high-touch areas.

The Washington College Fall 2021 COVID-19 Guidelines suggest that students should clean doorknobs, computers, phones, and other objects regularly to prevent the spread of germs through touch.

Cleaning your environment regularly means removing the germs which threaten your health, making a trio of effective and easy wellness steps.

Do not share food and drinks:

While the loaded fries at Martha’s Kitchen may be the perfect size for sharing, and your coffee order is so good others need to experience it, it is best to not share what you’re sipping on with anyone but yourself.

Sharing a drink means sharing backwash and picking at each other’s food means eating whatever’s on your friends’ hands.

Donald Schaffner, a food microbiologist at Rutgers University, said to CNN Health that the overall risk of contracting a disease through sharing food — or even eating food from the floor — is relatively low, but “people do need to be aware of the problem and evaluate their level of risk based on the situation.”

That problem being: sharing food with people or the floor transfers bacteria directly into your meal.

According to CNN, Paul Dawson, a food scientist and professor at Clemson University, has studied how bacteria spreads through common food habits. He has conducted experiments examining issues such as double-dipping, the five second rule, and blowing out birthday candles.

He found that those three behaviors — and others — transferred bacteria at different levels into the foods being consumed.

Again, while that behavior has a low risk of causing sickness, Randy Woroboro — a food microbiologist at Cornell University cited by CNN — said “that a good rule is, if a person is sick, they really shouldn’t be sharing food or preparing food to share with other people.”

If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is very possible to spread illness without being symptomatic.

Put toiletries away:

The return of in-person classes brings with it the return of rushed mornings. Learning how to tighten your morning routine to hit that 8:30 a.m. class on time is an art, and sometimes students may be tempted to shave off precious seconds by leaving their toiletries on the sink counter.

According to WC’s Fall 2021 COVID-19 Guidelines, that time saver is not recommended.

Unless you are in a personal residence with a private bathroom, you will be sharing that sink with other students. That means other students will be brushing, flossing, and mouth rinsing at your shared station, spreading droplets across your toothbrush. The communal nature of your daily hygiene routines makes toothbrushes that are left on the counter a primary means of transmitting viruses, according to the Guidelines.

Bringing your toiletries to and from the sink ensures that your germs are the only ones on your toothbrush.

Get your flu shot:

Vaccines work. Enough said.

Influenza may not be the top illness on students’ minds, but it can knock students out of class for days, is generally unpleasant, and — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — has the potential to be seriously harmful.

It is also a fickle disease, having many variants, so vaccines are not one-and-done or good for multiple years.

Rather, each year’s influenza vaccine is designed to protect against “the influenza viruses that research indicates will be most common during the upcoming season,” according to the CDC.

That is why it is important to not avoid your vaccine this year just because you received it in the past. Flu shots must be an annual event, so your immune system is ready to fight whatever this flu season brings.

Seasonal flu shots are available currently at pharmacies such as Walgreens and Chester River Pharmacy. Health Services also arranged to have Walgreens pharmacists give flu shots in Hodson Hall Commons on Oct. 6, 8, and 11 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., no appointment needed.

So, you don’t have to wait or drive to take an important preventative step.

Wear a mask:

Sometimes you can’t help it, you get sick. Now we should do our best to not spread it to others. Part of that is staying away from your courses and friends if you’re sick. However, you can’t always avoid public spaces such as the dining hall or the bathroom. An easy and effective way of assuring you can still complete necessary tasks while not spreading illness is by wearing a mask.

While all WC students should wear their mask in indoor public spaces per the fall 2021 COVID-19 Guidelines, masks can serve as a staple of public health outside of the ongoing pandemic.

Mask wearing may be novel in the United States, but it had a worldwide precedent before the COVID-19 pandemic. Wearing face coverings both while healthy and sick — especially during flu season — is common in countries like Japan, according to Mokoto Rich writing for New York Times.

According to Rich, masks are often used to prevent the spread of common illnesses in the workplace, on mass transportation, and throughout daily life in Japan.

By blocking the spread of droplets from your nose and mouth, we can better protect those around us from airborne illnesses like influenza and strep throat.

College is always a space for spreading disease. Being around so many new people and entering novel climates exposes students to new germs and allergens. But staying healthy and safe protects our academic pursuits, classmates, and community.

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