Well, here we are with another Memphis winter, and who can guess what that means? It’s always so difficult to stay healthy this time of year as it grows colder, and we find ourselves stuck inside. Who
can avoid the coughing, hacking coworker, or the feverish child with the constant nasal stream of bacteria? How is it possible to stay healthy when faced with these unprecedented odds? As an emergency medicine physician, I am persistently surrounded by viruses, bacteria, and constant exposure to an array of body fluids that would shock the most steelystomached individual. How do I avoid a state of perpetual illness, especially during this time of year?
In medical school, I learned very early, especially during pediatric rotations, that constant hand washing was necessary to stay well. Today’s culture allows us to have easy exposure to hand sanitizing gel, which I use frequently on my shifts in the hospital. However, I have found that nothing beats good old fashioned soap and water, with effective hand washing. By effective, I mean proper hand washing, not a quick rinse. The Center for Disease Control recommends washing for at least 20 seconds, roughly the time needed to sing “Happy Birthday” to yourself twice, with a sufficient lather, making sure to wash the backs of your hands and between all fingers and nails. Given the number of times I clean my hands on a daily basis, hand washing tends to dry my hands out significantly less than alcoholcontaining products. Hand washing alone cannot ward off all illness, however. Other precautions necessary are general good health, such as exercise and proper diet.
I admit it. I go through my lapses of exercise, and find that winter is the easiest time to hide from all that nasty cardiovascular stimulation. However, this is the time when we need exercise the most. Alternatives to the gym are taking a brisk walk with the dog, going for a short bike ride, taking a short break from all the mundane daily tasks and playing with the kids outside for an hour (the kids will love you for it!!). Not only is this good for your body, it’s also amazing for your mind. Seasonal depressive disorder is a real thing, and often can present itself in a milder form in many of us who feel locked indoors due to cold weather and an undue fear that the cold will make us ill. In fact, staying locked inside is the true reason our health fails us. Closer quarters mean easier exposure to those viruses that we want to avoid. So get outside and get that heart rate up, even if it’s just for a short game of tag with the kids.
Diet is a tough subject with many different approaches. I, however, like to take a more simplistic route with those who don’t have specific health issues (i.e. diabetes, true allergies, congestive heart failure, etc). I am a firm believer in variety coupled with fresh produce and meats, and avoiding pre-packaged or fast food products. I am a huge fan of the recent direction many restaurants and groceries in the Mid-South and nationwide are taking toward local sourcing and healthy farming techniques. I have greatly appreciated local businesses in Collierville that bring fresh, local products to our table. For the vast majority of us, the act of eating fat, salt, or sweets is not the true issue, rather than how MUCH of these things we consume. For example, the ideal meat serving should be no bigger than an average person’s fist. There is no need to consume a whole Ribeye steak in one sitting.
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention antibiotics this time of year. In the emergency department, I often get requests for antibiotics to clear up that nasty cough that refuses to ease up. I routinely find it necessary to sit down at the bedside and have a serious discussion regarding the serious risks and benefits of antibiotics. Our society is at a crossroads in a sense. I regularly come across bacteria that are resistant to numerous antibiotics thanks to prior exposure to antibiotic types (amoxicillin, Z-packs, etc), often due to inappropriate prescribing practices. The fact is, viruses are the major cause of the cough, fever, sinusitis and overall flu-like symptoms that bring many to their primary physician or emergency department, for which antibiotics are utterly useless. The common cold, unfortunately, will often last weeks, to (occasionally) months. People with lung disease such as asthma, COPD/ emphysema, and bronchitis, typically take longer to clear a simple viral illness, and are more likely to benefit from alternate therapies such as decongestants and cough suppressants. Frankly, we as a society are used to a fast-food mindset, looking for that immediate relief rather than allowing our body’s immune system to effectively do its job. A good physician will recognize this, and will follow you closely for symptoms that are more concerning for pathology that actually will benefit from antibiotic therapy.
Hopefully these few simple goals this winter will allow a stress-free, healthy time for you and your family. Make use of the numerous outdoor spaces and indoor opportunities in the Collierville and Memphis area, including the newly renovated and frankly amazing Shelby Farms, or all those new bike lanes you’ve noticed, as to keep yourself active and healthy. Take time to cook or learn to cook, so you know what is in your diet. Try new food types (I know you’ve wondered about that strange looking item on the fruit aisle at your grocery). Overall, make use of all of the advances this wonderful community has made in the past several years to keep yourself healthy. Happy Holidays!!
Alan Taylor, MD
Assistant Program Director
Emergency Medicine Residency Program
University of Tennessee, Memphis
Emergency Physician at Methodist University Hospital