Staying Healthy on a Crowded Campus

Eszter Hargittai shares tips, realizing that academics can't isolate themselves from people, some of whom will be sneezing and coughing.

March 4, 2015

Sniffling students, coughing colleagues -- there seems to be an endless stream of sick bodies running around campus, perhaps even more so this season than usual when even many of those who got the flu vaccine have not been immune to getting sick. I am delighted, however, that I have not been one of those people. I am sure part of it is just luck, but I suspect it is more than that. I used to get a bad cold four to five times annually, so I certainly do not have a long track record of avoiding a sore throat and a stuffy nose. Rather, this year I have taken extra measures to avoid a cold. I share them here to spread the health.

The simplest method may be to live like a hermit, but that is rarely a realistic option for academics, certainly not during the academic year. I myself go to campus every day unless I am on the road, which is infrequent during a teaching term. Of course, personal circumstances will influence the extent to which one is exposed to other sick people. Generally speaking, I have found that it is impossible to avoid such exposure. In the past several months, I have had sick students in my classrooms and my office. I have been in meetings and sitting on panels with sick colleagues. I have also been on airplanes, which are notorious for getting people sick. So how have I managed to avoid getting sick with a cold or the flu despite having a history of catching such illnesses regularly in the past? By adopting a few rituals, if you will. You can, too.

A caveat -- I have no medical training and I have only read up on some of the things I discuss mainly to check that they do not have negative side effects. I am not claiming that there is necessarily scientific evidence to support that the individual components work, but together, they have worked for me. Your mileage may vary.

If you have not seen a doctor for a general checkup in a while, then start with that. You want to make sure that you are as healthy as possible. For years I had not been getting enough sleep for no obvious reason. A simple blood test revealed that I had hypothyroidism -- i.e., an underactive thyroid -- with all sorts of side effects such as fatigue, weight gain, memory loss and a host of other undesirable issues. Millions of people have some sort of thyroid disease, and many (I don’t know if it’s the majority or not) of them do not know about it. It is very easy to treat and treatment can make a huge difference.

Vitamin D deficiency is another one of those health issues that is very easily treatable with supplements, but often goes undiagnosed. The point is, go to the doctor if you have not been in a while and get a blood test to make sure your system has what it needs to operate smoothly. And then be sure to make a habit of taking the prescribed necessary supplements. Doing so helped me address my ongoing problem with sleeplessness. And getting eight hours of sleep a night is an important component of staying healthy, so this is a significant first step.

Research has found that the flu virus spreads more easily/survives longer in dry air. To address this issue, I have not only gotten serious about a humidifier in my home, but have also gotten one for my office. I did considerable research on humidifiers last year and settled on the Air-o-Swiss 7146 model. It is not cheap, but I have found it to be worth the price. It takes up very little space, it is quiet, it is easy to refill and it is easy to turn off. I have tried other models that are either too large, too loud, too clunky or, in the worst case, simply do not work at all. So model does matter. I also bought a Satechi USB Portable Humidifier for trips since hotel rooms are often dry. That has worked well, too.

Hand sanitizer has become a standard accessory wherever I go. I have a small bottle attached to my handbag. I have a large bottle and smaller ones in my office. I put several in my research lab for students to use. I was raised to wash my hands whenever I get home, so that is a habit I have had all my life. What is different now is that whenever I enter my office, I go straight to the hand sanitizer. I even bring it to class and offer it to students. (They do not seem to care for it, but it is there if they are interested.) Hand sanitizers do not have to be a great expense. You can either buy them in bulk or pick up a travel size or a regular container at a dollar store. Do it.

Should you care what you wear? Some recent research suggests that a warmer body may be better fighting off a cold virus than a body that is cold. So do consider dressing up not just for comfort, but also for health. I have found that wool socks (merino wool is my favorite) and good boots are a key component to staying warm, as is regular use of hats, scarves and mittens, at least in a place like Chicagoland, where I live and work.

The following supplements do not seem to have much scientific evidence to support their role in preventing colds per se, but you will find countless people -- people with no financial interest to motivate their enthusiasm -- advocating for their uses. Elderberry (or Sambucus) can help with cold symptoms. It comes in both liquid form and as chewy supplements. I do not take it regularly, but if I feel a cold coming on, I do reach for it.

Garlic has lots of health benefits. While its link to either preventing or treating colds is not clear, what is the harm? It turns out not much. Making fresh garlic a part of your everyday diet (aiming for at least two cloves a day) can have all sorts of health benefits. One easy way to do this is to mince some garlic in some tea with honey. You will barely know it is there, but your body will appreciate it.

Apropos tea, one that is especially good for soothing the throat -- one that came recommended to me by those who are in the theater world -- is Throat Coat. Alternatively, you can make ginger tea, which uses another plant with lots of health benefits. Simply cut up some fresh ginger root, boil some water, steep the ginger in it for a few minutes, add some honey and voilà. I have made garlic, ginger and honey a regular part of my diet, a simple addition with potentially significant benefits. And drinking all this tea is itself helpful, as it is important to keep hydrated throughout the day.

Zinc seems to get the most mixed reviews. In particular, its use through nasal sprays has been linked to long-term loss of smell, so there are definitely potential negative side effects. Nonetheless, some studies have found that taking it for a few days at the early onset of a cold may help. The literature advises against making it a regular part of your diet, though.

In sum, making sure that your body is producing the hormones it needs (it turns out vitamin D itself acts like a hormone) or addressing deficiencies with supplements is an important first step to beating colds. Create an environment that is not too dry, always have hand sanitizer around and dress in a way that keeps your body warm even in chilling temperatures. Incorporate garlic, ginger and honey into your regular diet, and stay hydrated. Reach for some elderberry and zinc when you are starting to feel a cold coming on.

And give yourself a break! Extra rest is crucial when you are starting to feel like you are coming down with something. The world will go on if you take a sick day, and taking one sick day will certainly be better than taking five. With these daily habits, I hope you, too, will avoid sniffling, sneezing and coughing through the rest of the academic year -- and hopefully beyond.


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