Hand Washing

How To Avoid Cold and Flu

The winter chill is in the air and everyone around you is sneezing. What can you do to steer clear of cold and flu viruses this season?

Hand Washing
Prevent illness by washing hands frequently!

The best medicine is prevention.

The first step is to avoid getting sick in the first place. Here are my tips:

  • Wash and sanitize your hands frequently. This is the best way to avoid getting sick. In the hospital there are Purell dispensers in front of every patient room and sinks easily accessible. I sanitize my hands before and after every patient encounter. I also wash my hands before eating or before touching my face. I carry hand sanitizer in my purse and in my car.
  • In fact, I avoid putting my hands near my face unless freshly washed. (This is no easy task for a former nail biter!)
  • Avoid people who are sick, especially if you are immunocompromised. If you must come in to close contact with someone who is sick (e.g. your child), wash your hands after any contact with them and before eating or putting your hands near your face. Consider wearing a mask.
    • If you are in close contact with someone with documented influenza, discuss with your PCP whether you should take prophylactic oseltamivir (Tamiflu) medication.
  • GET YOUR INFLUENZA VACCINE! Everyone. Even if you have never had the flu. Even if you are otherwise healthy. I cannot stress this enough to my patients. The influenza vaccine saves lives. Some myth busting:
    • You cannot get influenza from the injected influenza vaccine. You may develop a day or two of malaise and even a low-grade fever as your body creates antibodies to the vaccine. However, you cannot develop influenza.
    • Vaccines do NOT cause autism. More on this in a later post, but read this for more.
    • The vaccine is not 100% effective (nothing is in medicine). However, it significantly reduces the incidence of influenza.
    • See the CDC website for more.
  • Get your pneumococcal (“pneumonia”) vaccine if you meet criteria (eg. if you are above the age of 65 or if you smoke, have diabetes, or a variety of other chronic illnesses). This will help protect you from one of the common causes of bacterial pneumonia. Discuss with your PCP.

But why should I care about avoiding getting a respiratory infection in the first place?

  • According to the CDC, about 36,000 people die of influenza each year.
    • In my ICU rotation my intern year, I took care of an otherwise healthy 45 year old man who developed acute respiratory distress syndrome from the flu and was on a ventilator for 5 weeks.
    • I personally got the H1N1 flu in 2009 and, though I was otherwise perfectly healthy at the time, I was completely out of commission with a high fever for 11 days. This was followed by another week of so of pneumonia and a pleural effusion. The flu is no joke!
  • It’s bad for the economy. No, seriously. According to the CDC, influenza alone causes workers in the US to lose up to 111 million workdays, totaling to an estimated $7 billion per year in sick days and lost productivity.
  • Even a simple “cold” (a viral upper respiratory infection) can be fatal for people with chronic conditions such as asthma and COPD, people who are immunosuppressed (eg. people with cancer on chemotherapy, people with autoimmune disorders on immunosuppressing medications, people with HIV/AIDS).
  • You can pass it on to other people, including people with the above conditions.
  • It’s a hassle! Whether you are the one who is sick or your child, spouse, or loved one is, respiratory infections are a nuisance.

I’ve caught a cold (or flu)! Now what?

  • If you have a fever (temp > 100.5F), consider getting tested for influenza with your PCP or at an urgent care center, as you may qualify for receiving oseltamivir (Tamiflu). You must present within 48hr of symptoms to have any benefit from Tamiflu. This medication can reduce symptoms and shorten duration of illness by 1-2 days.
  • If you have fever and cough productive of sputum (of any color), or symptoms that do not get better within a week, seek medical examination as you could have a lower respiratory infection such as pneumonia.
  • For all other viral upper respiratory infections (symptoms such as sore throat, runny or stuffed nose, runny eyes, sneezing), no medication is needed. You may take supportive medications (i.e., medications to make you feel better). Your body will fight the virus on it’s own.
  • Get rest, drink plenty of fluids, and avoid close contact with other people in order to prevent passing the virus on.
  • If you have malaise, muscle aches, headache, or fever, ibuprofen (the active ingredient in Advil and Motrin) and/or Acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol) can help relieve those symptoms.
    • Discuss with your doctor whether these medications are safe for you. For example, those with kidney problems and those at increased risk of bleeding should not take ibuprofen without OK from your doctor. Those with liver problems should check with doctor before taking acetaminophen.
    • Seek medical care if you have a severe headache, especially if you do not typically have headaches or if it is the worst headache of your life.
  • If you have a stuffy or runny nose, consider saline nasal spray or using a Neti Pot. Decongestants such as DayQuil can help (contains 3 ingredients: acetaminophen, a cough suppressant, and a nasal decongestant) though I personally never use these myself. Ask your doctor before using decongestants (ingredients such as phenylephrine) especially if you are prone to a racing heart, high blood pressure, or glaucoma.
  • If you primarily have phlegm and a productive cough, you may benefit from a cough suppressant such as Mucinex (tablets) or Robitussin (liquid). I order them frequently in hospitalized patients.

Using these tips I have avoided getting sick so far this season (knocking on wood!). Stay healthy and be well!

See my About page for all disclaimers.

Sunprotection

Summer is upon us, and that means fun in the sun!  Let’s remember to be safe and smart, taking measures to prevent sunburn in the short-term, and skin cancer, premature aging, and unsightly discoloration in the long-term.

AA sublocksunsmarties_cabana_tent

Everyone, regardless of skin tone, is susceptible to the harmful effects of the sun’s rays. People with lighter skin types who burn easily should be especially cautious.

Ultraviolent (UV) radiation (290 to 400 nm) causes skin damage. Within that spectrum, UVB (290 to 320 nm) is responsible for sunburn (“B” for “burn”), inflammation, skin discoloration, and cancer formation. UVA (320 to 400 nm) is responsible for photoaging (“A” for “aging”), skin darkening, and possibly cancer formation.

The UV Index, on a scale of 0-11, is a forecast of how risky the sun exposure is that day, and is calculated by zipcode here or here. Read this or this to learn how to interpret the UV index.

beach hat

To protect your skin against UV radiation:

A)   Avoid the sun during peak hours: stay inside or seek shade between 11 am and 3pm. This is especially important at latitudes closer to the equator.

B)   Wear sun protective clothing:

  1. Sunglasses: Look for lenses that block 99-100% of UV rays. UV rays can lead to eye damage including cataracts, macular degeneration, photokeratitis (“sunburn of the eye”). For more: Mayo Clinic, All About Vision.
  2. Hats: especially wide-brimmed.
  3. Long-sleeve garments: Fabrics are rated on their ultraviolent protection factor (UPF).

C)   Apply sunscreen: these contain filters that reflect or absorb UV rays. They fall into two categories: organic (aka chemical), or inorganic (aka physical).

kids under tent

Here are some tips for finding and using sunscreen:

1)   Look for “broad-spectrum” on the label: these protect against both UVB and UVA. Make sure it contains at least one of the following in the ingredients list: avobenzone, zinc oxide, or titanium dioxide.

2)   Look for SPF 15 or above, per the FDA (but better 30 or higher). When enough sunscreen is applied, SPF 15 will absorb about 93% of UV radiation; SP 30 will absorb 97%, and SPF 50 98%.

3)   Apply daily, even on a cloudy day. Keep your sunscreen of choice next to your toothbrush so you apply it as part of your morning routine.

4)   Look for cosmetics or lotions with SPF15+. Choosing a moisturizer or a foundation with SPF to use as your daily sunprotective product may help you stick with your sunscreen routine.

5)   Apply 15-30 minutes before going out in the sun. This allows a protective film to form on the skin.

6)   Apply sunscreen liberally before outdoor activities to all sun-exposed areas. For the average adult, this means applying 1 oz (30mL), or one shot glass full.

7)   Reapply often: at least every two hours when out in the sun. Reapply after swimming, water sports, or sweating.

8)   Look for water-resistant sunscreens for days you will be in the water. Continue to reapply, however, after each swim.

9)   If you have sensitive skin, inorganic or physical sunscreens may be best for you, as they are less irritating. These contain mineral compounds such as zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide. These products are also preferred for use in children.

10) Find the form you are most likely to use. Sunscreens come in a variety of forms: creams (greasier, thicker), lotions (thinner), liquids, sprays, gels, roll-on sticks. Find the vehicle that works for you. The best sunscreen is the one that you will use.

Vitamin D: Some people are concerned that they will not produce enough 25-hydroxyvitamin D if they do not get enough sun. Vitamin D, however, is readily available in certain foods (milk, fortified juices, salmon) or in supplement form. Vitamin D insufficiency is a common problem, but the safest way to combat it is by taking a daily supplement.

Thanks for reading, and enjoy your summer!

-Alex

 More links: Consumer info on Sunscreens, Teacher Resources, SunSmart Australia

References:

Baron ED, Elmets CA, Corona R. Selection of sunscreen and sun-protective measures. UpToDate April 01, 2014. Accessed May 13, 2014.

Young AR, Tewari A, Dellavalle RP, Danzl DF, Corona R. Sunburn. UpToDate May 01, 2014. Accessed May 13, 2014.

HPV: Could It Happen To You?

This article was originally published by The Cornell Daily Sun on February 14, 2014. Some changes have been made to this version.

A 25 year-old woman comes to clinic for her routine Papanicolau (Pap) smear during my ob-gyn rotation. A few days later she receives a phone call from the gynecology resident. “Your Pap smear results were abnormal,” the doctor told her, “and we would like to take a biopsy of your cervix, which we do under an exam called a colposcopy.” She is told that this abnormality was caused by a strain of the human papillomavirus (HPV), the same virus family that causes common warts.

“HPV?” she asks, “isn’t that a sexually transmitted infection?”

“It is, in fact it is the most common STI in the US.”

“I didn’t think that I was at risk for HPV… I have not had many partners… and we almost always use protection… and I think maybe I was vaccinated… Does this mean I’m going to get cancer?”

The patient expressed a flurry of questions. She was quite surprised and distressed. She did not know that she could be among the 20 million Americans, male and female, aged 15-49 currently infected with HPV. Seventy-four percent of those infections occur in the 15-24 age group.

Nearly all sexually active people will become infected with one of the many strains of HPV at some point in their lives; half become infected within three years of becoming sexually active. Some strains are high-risk, or potentially cancer-causing, and some are low-risk, or wart-causing. Most HPV infections will not cause symptoms or problems, and they will become undetectable within 6-24 months. Among women with high-risk HPV infection of the cervix, the infection will be persistent in 10%, putting the patient at risk of developing dysplasia, or precancer, that, if left untreated, could progress to cancer. Cervical cancer is currently the third most common cancer in women, and 99.7% of cervical cancer is caused by HPV. Both males and females, regardless of sexual orientation, are susceptible to developing dysplasias and cancers of the anogenital region. HPV has also been associated with head and neck cancers and some skin cancers. Looking at cancer as a whole, approximately 5% of all cancers in men and 10% of all cancers in women are caused by HPV.

There is no cure for HPV infection. The best strategies are prevention and early detection. Vaccination with Gardasil or Cervarix can prevent infection with HPV types 16 and 18, which are responsible for 70% of cervical cancer. Gardasil also provides protection against HPV types 6 and 11 which cause anogenital warts. Gardasil has been approved for use in both females and males ages 9 to 26, and is ideally given before the start of sexual activity (i.e. before exposure to HPV), so it is commonly administered prepubertally (eg. age 11-12). Even if you are already sexually active, vaccination is recommended. On the other hand, even if you plan to abstain and become monogamous for life, if your partner has ever had another sexual partner, you could still be at risk for acquiring HPV. Furthermore, HPV can be transmitted by genital contact besides intercourse. Vaccination should be a consideration for all young people, because everyone who will eventually become sexually active will most likely be exposed to at least one strain of this ubiquitous virus.

Because vaccination does not cover all strains of HPV, regular Pap smears are recommended in women aged 21 and over regardless of vaccination status. With a Pap smear your doctor can collect a sample of cells from the cervix and upper vagina to analyze under the microscope. This test can detect precancerous cells, prompting further intervention in order to diagnose dysplasia and prevent the progression to cancer.

So, what are some ways to protect yourself against HPV?

1. Get vaccinated if you are under 26, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, and sexual activity. Then,

2. Get Pap smears regularly if you are a female, starting at age 21. Your doctor will let you know how frequently you should be screened. Currently most women with a negative Pap smear at age 21 only need screening once every three years.

3. Use condoms consistently. Condom use reduces the risk of HPV infection and disease progression. Condoms are not, however, a perfect protection against HPV. Condom use is important to prevent against other STIs including HIV and chlamydia, two infections that have serious consequences in their own right, and that make HPV more likely to remain persistent.

4. Consider your number of partners: HPV prevalence increases nearly linearly with increasing number of lifetime partners, despite condom use. Furthermore, infection with multiple high-risk HPV types increases the risk of high-grade precancerous lesions.

5. Don’t smoke: Smoking is a risk factor for persistent infections.

If, after taking appropriate precautions, you find yourself with an HPV-related concern as the patient described did, remember that:

1) You are not alone. The volume of patients seeking care for HPV-related concerns, particularly cervical dysplasia, is quite large. On my ob-gyn rotation, four afternoons per week were dedicated to cervical dysplasia: one to Pap smears and three to colposcopy. I have also seen patients presenting to dermatology for genital warts and for HPV-related skin cancers and precancers of the penis.

2) About 90% of infections become undetectable without further intervention. Therefore, your infection will most likely not remain persistent, and you will most likely not develop an HPV-related cancer. Make healthy choices for your body and mind, and live your life.

References: