10 Ways to Defend Your Mind and Body from the New Flu

A never-before-seen flu strain has everyone nervous. But there are simple ways to stay safe and stress-free.

May 2, 2009

A standard practice for flu prevention pertains to the swine flu, too: Wash your hands often with warm, soapy water.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—About a week after we first learned about the H1N1 virus, or swine flu, more than a dozen countries have reported more than 300 confirmed cases. While cases in the United States have been relatively mild, and officials said Friday the flu is showing signs of tapering off in some places, it’s important we all continue to take steps to protect ourselves. And as it turns out, the best protection tips are things we’ve all heard before…usually from our mothers.

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1. Know when to use a sick day. If you’re not feeling well, stay home so you don’t spread a possible viral infection. Swine flu symptoms are the same as the regular flu—fever, lethargy, sore throat, and sometimes vomiting and diarrhea. If you experience flu-like symptoms, contact your doctor. Initial studies show that antiviral medications do work against the swine flu, says Mary Klotman, MD, chief of the division of infectious diseases at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. But in most of the current U.S. cases so far, patients recovered without the drugs.

2. Scrub-a-dub-dub those hands. A standard practice for flu prevention pertains to the swine flu, too: Wash your hands often with warm, soapy water. You may not even realize you’re doing it, but touching the so-called T-zone—your mouth, eyes, and nose—can give the virus a chance to enter your body. So avoid touching your face, but keep your hands clean in case you accidentally (perhaps inevitably) touch it anyway.

Here’s the best way to wash your hands:

• Remember the three main components: warm water, soap, and friction.

• Wet your hands with very warm running water. “Not hot enough to burn you, but very warm,” suggests germ expert Donna Duberg, MA, MS, assistant professor of clinical laboratory science at Saint Louis University in Missouri. “Use lots of soap so that there is a good lather.”

• Add soap and rub hands vigorously for 20 seconds. “If hands are visibly dirty, wash them to get the dirt and grime off, rinse, and then wash with soap again to help remove any germs that are still on the skin,” Duberg says.

• Time it out for kids. If you have little ones, get them washing to a song like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” “The ABC Song,” or “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Or introduce them to Henry the Hand, champion handwasher.

• Wash all surfaces. That including the back of hands, between fingers, the tips of fingers, and under your fingernails.

• Rinse, keeping your fingers pointed down.

• Dry vigorously with paper or a clean cloth towel. If someone in your house already has a flu infection, it’s best to use paper towels and toss the used paper in the trash (look for a brand made from recycled material).

• Use a towel to turn off the faucet and open the door. If you want to post a reminder by your bathroom sink, you can print out a free hand-washing poster.

3. Keep surfaces clean. Viruses are generally not as hardy as bacteria, so good, routine cleaning with soap and water or disinfecting wipes should keep their numbers down, says Duberg. “If a person has the flu, consider using a 10-percent vinegar and water solution, or 10-percent bleach and water spray, especially on bathroom surfaces and faucets,” she says. “And be conscientious in wiping off door handles, door frames, faucets, and any other surfaces family members touch using the solutions, or disinfecting wipes.” We prefer the vinegar mix—it’s more environmentally friendly—but if you use bleach, only mix what you need at the time. The bleach potion loses its ability to kill germs once it’s been sitting around for a few hours.

4. Mind your manners. If you sneeze or cough, do it into a tissue, and then wash your hands after you toss the tissue to prevent the spread of germs.

5. As always, cook your pork. Russia and China announced they will temporarily ban the import of pork from Mexico and certain parts of the United States amid the swine flu scare, and some country even ordered the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of pigs. This sparks obvious questions: Can you get swine flu from eating pork? The answer is no. On general food safety principles, though, be sure to cook the meat thoroughly before eating it. And buy pork that’s produced organically or on small farms. Some experts say that raising pigs on overcrowded confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) may have contributed to the spread of the virus.

All this talk about the new virus and an “imminent” pandemic send your anxiety into overdrive, but that’s not necessary. President Barack Obama said Friday this could turn out behave like a normal flu. Here’s how to keep a level head and stay healthy in the mental department:

1. Don’t mistake worry for the thing you worry about. If you can’t tear your mind away from the thought that you’ll be the next person to come down with swine flu, take that as a sign that you need to chill. “If people can worry themselves into [documented cases of] hysterical blindness, they can worry themselves into symptoms of the flu,” explains Frank Dattilio, PhD, clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Worrying over anything can cause physical symptoms, and a lot of the symptoms of anxiety overlap with symptoms of the flu. Difficulty breathing, lightheadedness, feeling hot and sweaty, and experiencing tightness in the chest don’t necessarily indicate that you have the flu; instead, you simply could be worrying about it too much. “If you have the flu, those symptoms will be consistent,” says Dattilio. “If it’s anxiety, [your symptoms will be] up and down, up and down— inconsistent.” He does note that a high fever warrants a call to your doctor.

2. Let familiar routine wash away your worry. Depending on the individual, worry can also cause headaches, neck aches, backaches, upset stomach, irritable bowel symptoms, loss of appetite, high blood pressure, and sleep problems. To deal with swine-flu related anxiety, try to refocus and stick to your normal daily routine. Doing the things you normally do keeps you too busy and distracted to feed your fears.

3. Turn off the news. It’s good to know how to protect yourself against illness, but information overload isn’t going to calm your worrisome mind. “Don’t spend too much time listening to the news, and make sure to continue with your daily activities and routines,” says Jeffrey Rossman, PhD, clinical psychologist and director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, MA, and a Rodale.com advisor.

4. Be proactive in protecting yourself. If you’re worried about the flu, channel your energy into constructive steps to avoid catching it in the first place. Wash your hands often and keep them away from your eyes, nose, and mouth. Other healthy lifestyle habits, like drinking plenty of fluids, eating a nutritious diet, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep, also can help boost your immunity. “One of the best ways to help keep your immune system strong and to avoid getting the flu is to manage stress well and not get overly anxious about the situation,” says Rossman.

5. Know the signs of excess stress. Talking to your doctor or mental health practitioner can help you develop effective ways to cope with your worry if you have signs of excessive anxiety, like obsessive hand washing (to the point of damaging your skin), or becoming so preoccupied with the disease that it interferes with eating, sleeping, concentrating, or working.