Being Your Own Nurse: Taking Care of Yourself When You are Sick
We all know that stress and fatigue can make it more likely that one will get sick, and what better time to be stressed and tired than when you are studying long days, staying up late getting ready for tests, and away from home in a new place! But there are easy things you can do to stay well, and there are minor illnesses that you can take care of yourself.
by Peggy Moloney, RN, PhD, ANP
How to stay well
Although it seems obvious that getting enough sleep at night and eating "balanced meals" is a good idea, sometimes it's easy to get into "study mode" where lots of caffeine and junk food is easiest. But there are little ways you can get more rest and "eat right," like taking a quick nap in the daytime if you've been up late the night before, and keeping fruit in your room. A daily multivitamin is also a good preventive measure.
The other thing you can do is to start exercising, something that makes a big difference in how your body fights off illness. Brisk walking across campus or at the gym, swimming or working out, for just 15 to 20 minutes a day, can make you feel a lot better, work better and be more resistant to colds or flu.
What to do when you get sick
Head colds: head colds are usually caused by a virus. The common symptoms of a head cold are: head congestion, cough, a temperature below 101.0 F, general achiness, and fatigue. There's no cure for a cold, but you can get well faster by resting, so your body can summon the resources to fight off the illness. You can take aspirin for the achiness, or Tylenol if you have an upset stomach or a history of stomach ulcer.. A mild non-prescription decongestant that contains pseudoephedrine (like Sudafed) can help you dry up. Cough syrups containing dextromethorphan (like Robitussin) can help you stop coughing. Drink lots of fluids to stay hydrated, like water and 7-up, no caffeine as this will dehydrate you more. One study found that chicken noodle soup for a cold was very effective! Echinacea may also shorten the length of colds and flu, and vitamin C and zinc have been touted as effective for colds. If your temperature is over 101.0, or you are sick for longer than 5 to 7 days, you should see your health care provider.
Sore throat: Most sore throats are also caused by a virus, and a sore throat is usually from a virus when it is accompanied by head congestion, general achiness, and a temperature below 101.0 F. For viral sore throats, taking aspirin or ibuprofen (unless there is some reason you can't take these like a history of stomach ulcer) usually is better than acetaminophen because they are better for inflammation. But if you have a sore throat, and no congestion or other symptoms, and also have a temperature over 101.0 F, along with "swollen glands" (enlarged tender lymph nodes in you neck or under your jaw), you might have strep throat. Strep is a bacterial infection that can be very serious, sometimes even winding up in heart disease if untreated. If you have a sore throat that sounds like strep, you should see your health care provider, who will probably do a culture and/or give you antibiotics.
Stomach virus (the "flu"): Most upset stomachs that we call the "flu" are caused by a virus. Usually the sick person has nausea and/or vomiting, diarrhea and/or stomach cramps, temperature below 100.0 F, fatigue and general achiness. Antibiotics don't work for this (and may actually aggravate the upset stomach), and most non-prescription medicine for diarrhea just prolongs the symptoms. The best thing to do to make the virus disappear faster is to take only clear liquids for 24 to 48 hours (no solid foods), such as broth, clear Jell-O, decaffeinated soda, water and Gatorade. If you're still vomiting after 48 hours, or if you diarrhea isn't significantly better, you should see your health care provider. If you feel better after 24 to 48 hours, you can gradually start back on "real" food like bananas, rice and toast.
Some other tips:
* If you have a major medical problem, like diabetes, you should see your health care provider when you are sick--don't wait around to see if it'll get better.
* Be careful if you're taking other medicine; sometimes mixing non-prescription medicine with other things like antibiotics, or anti-depressants, can be risky. Diet pills are also risky and in some people can cause high blood pressure, anxiety and other problems. If you're unsure whether it is safe for you to take non-prescription medicine with your regular prescription medicine, call your health care provider.
* If you have a stomach virus, and you're taking oral-contraceptives, remember that you might not be absorbing your pills, and use a back-up contraceptive like condoms along with your pills, until your next period.
* With any of these illnesses, if you are still sick a week later, or if you temperature stays up for more than a few days, or if you go on vomiting or having diarrhea for more than a couple of days, you should see your health care provider.
* It will help you to treat yourself if you can check your own temperature, so keep an oral thermometer (ask a nurse to show you how to read it, if you don't already know).
Remember: the best treatment is prevention. Get those fruits and veggies every day, take your vitamins, and get some exercise even though you are too tired today. It will make a big difference in how you feel, and get you through the stress and fatigue.
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