You can’t turn on the news or scroll through social media lately without being hit with the hysteria about the coronavirus. And while we shouldn’t be panicking, Elizabeth Wang, an infectious disease physician with the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center said everyone needs to make an effort to help containing the spread should it happen.
“Though the immediate risk right now in the United States is low, the threat is real, and we should be alert, cautious and prepared,” she explained.
How exactly is that accomplished? It may seem like you can’t make a difference, but it’s simpler than you think. In the face of an outbreak or a possible pandemic, doctors note that the most selfless thing you can do is to take care of yourself.
The healthier you are, the less likely you put people who might be more at risk for the disease in danger. (Like those with weakened immune systems.) Here are some expert tips on what you can personally do to both keep yourself healthy and to help in the efforts against the spread of any illness:
Be smart about where you travel.
You don’t need to overreact and hide away until further notice, just be cautious or smart about the places you go. “Probably the number one thing you can do is, wherever the virus is, avoid it,” said Larry Burchett, a California-based emergency room physician.
Experts recommend keeping up to date on the spread and refraining from traveling to heavily contaminated places.
“And if a bigger outbreak happens in the United States, there will be places like hospitals with quarantines and all that. So staying away from those areas will be key,” he added.
Burchett said the virus disperses via respiratory droplets at a distance of around six feet. “So try to keep at least that distance away from infected individuals,” he suggested.
Practice good hygiene...
Protecting yourself against germs is your best line of defense, said Aaron Eli Glatt, chair of medicine at Mount Sinai South Nassau and a spokesperson for the Infectious Disease Society of America.
“If something looks dirty, it probably is dirty. Clean it, wipe it before you touch it,” he explained.
This includes common surfaces you might not normally think twice about. (PSA: Disinfectant wipes do work, as long as you use them properly.)
“The virus lives on surfaces for several hours after exposure … so using wipes to clean surfaces you touch ― airline seats, airline tray tables, the handles of grocery carts and other surfaces ― is a good idea,” said Terry Simpson, a California-based doctor who studied molecular virology at the University of Chicago.
And exercise common sense when it comes to cleanliness. “You’re coming out of the bathroom, wash your hands. These are all the types of things that people probably intuitively know and just don’t always bother to do,” Glatt added.
...Which includes using proper hand-washing techniques.
Steven Reisman, a cardiologist with the the New York Cardiac Diagnostic Center, said that it’s important to wash your hands with soap and water ― perhaps for longer than you realize.
“Wet your hands with clean running water, remove them from running water or temporarily turn it off, and lather your hands with soap by rubbing them together including your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails,” he said. “Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Next rinse your hands well under clean running water. Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.”
Simpson said you can sing “Happy Birthday” twice in a row and that should suffice in terms of timing.
And do it frequently. As a rule of thumb, Wang recommended lathering up as often as possible – “every time after using the bathroom or changing your child’s diaper, before eating food, after returning from the outside, after shaking people’s hands, after touching public surfaces, such as the elevator rail, doorknobs, etc.”
You should also limit touching your face.
The virus typically enters through the nose or the mouth, Simpson said. Therefore you should try to reduce how often you touch these areas unless it’s immediately after you washed your hands.
“Most of us unconsciously touch our nose and mouth multiple times in a day. It is difficult not to, but it is important,” Simpson said.
One trick that Kelly Cawcutt, associate director of infection control at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, suggested is to have a friend or family member let you know if you are touching your face to make you more aware of it.
“Nail biters can try the nail polish with bitter flavor to minimize this risk also,” she said.
And Simpson advised using hand lotion, especially if it has a fragrance. “That sets a cue to remind you not to have it near your face and hands.” Plus, frequent washing will dry out hands, which will cue you to put on more lotion and remind you of your mission to break the habit, Simpson added.
Get the flu shot.
If you haven’t yet received your flu vaccine, Glatt said it’s a good idea to do so now. Not only will it keep you as healthy as possible, it limits the number of people who need to be checked out by a doctor. This will help lower traffic in physicians’ offices and emergency rooms, which will then help them focus on people who may need treatment in the event of a serious coronavirus outbreak.
Step up your self-care.
“A lot of us live by pushing it to the max, working too much, not sleeping enough, staying out too late, drinking too much, overdoing the exercise,” Burchett said. But things like getting plenty of rest and staying hydrated can help to boost your immunity.
Also, do your best to keep your stress down during this time. “When we’re stressed, the body releases adrenaline and cortisol, actually oppressing individual parts of the immune system, altering the new white blood cells, and so literally your defenses are down,” Burchett added.
Toni Brayer, an internist with The Sutton Health Institute for Health and Healing, added that you should cut back on smoking and alcohol consumption, both of which “can make us more susceptible to infection.”
Eat well and get your vitamins (but don’t go overboard with it).
Chelsea Gloeckner, a registered dietitian in Milwaukee, said a healthy diet could help keep your immune system strong and advocated for fueling your body with nutrient-rich foods.
She recommended giving your gut health a boost by taking a probiotic or snacking on some Greek yogurt, Kiefer, sauerkraut, or kimchi. “You can also try limiting foods with added processed sugars, refined grains, fried food and highly-processed snacks,” she explained.
Gloeckner also recommended eating foods rich in vitamin D (fortified milk, fatty fish, eggs), zinc (beans, nuts, and tofu), beta-carotene (sweet potatoes, spinach), vitamin E (almond butter and peanuts), as well as foods with adequate amounts of protein.
Just keep in mind that while eating well can help keep you healthy generally, don’t expect it to be a cure all. And don’t fall for scams. “I’ve seen supplements and garbage being sold and marketed already as being able to prevent or treat coronavirus, which is absolutely not true,” Burchett said.
Hold off on the masks unless you’re already sick.
To quote the surgeon general, “Seriously people — STOP BUYING MASKS!”
Raj Dasgupta, a Los Angeles-based pulmonologist, highlighted that The World Health Organization has stated there is no need for healthy people to wear face masks ― only those who are already sick should be wearing them so germs don’t spread.
“If you insist upon wearing a face mask, only a well fitted N95 mask is worth trying,” he said, noting that most over-the-counter masks are not going to be able to prevent airborne particles from getting to you.
And Glatt said in some cases, a mask could make situations worse. “It might be counterintuitive because what do these people do with their masks? If it’s been breathed upon, coughed upon, sneezed upon, they put it in their pocket and they’re contaminating potentially everything else in their pocketbook, maybe using it again later on and then they contaminate their hands with the masks,” he added.
Stock up if you feel it’s necessary.
This includes items that you’d carry with you and products you might need at home down the line.
Kristopher Richardson, a physician assistant and member of the National Commission of Certified Physicians, said that “carrying alcohol containing hand sanitizer is helpful if you will not have access to a clean sink for proper hand washing.”
Wang suggested refilling all the necessary prescription medications you’re taking, as well as picking up items like water bottles and canned goods on your next grocery run if you deem it vital.
Stay home if you aren’t feeling well.
“If you are feeling ill or have fever, cough or shortness of breath, seek medical advice and stay home from work and from contact with others,” said Christopher Tex, an associate epidemiology professor at Chamberlain University. This is the best way to keep yourself from infecting others.
Tex said “the current understanding of the appearance of symptoms is from two days to 14 days, once a person becomes infected.”
“Consult your supervisor regarding possible alternatives for working from home or what should or could be done in case of illness,” he added.
For millions of workers in jobs that don’t have sick days or good leave policies, this might not be an easy solution (although some experts say your job may be protected thanks to certain regulations if you’re quarantined). That’s all the more reason for people with more flexible work situations who are sick to stay home.
Taking care of yourself isn’t just for you. It’s for everyone.