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Why I Fear the Cold and Flu Season

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I’m always on germ high alert. When I am out and I hear someone cough or sneeze, I divert far from them. My survival kit involves hand sanitizer, face masks and wet wipes. I often hear jokes about being a “germaphobe” and I have been gifted hand sanitizer by family and friends. Does it bother me? Nope. But it dawned on me that I might never have opened up to people as to why my life has become this way. Let me share, for not only myself, but also for those who are in my shoes.

I was always careful, but never to the extent I am now. No one wants to catch a cold or flu, but catching something now means something totally different to my life. Mainly because getting sick now involves more than just a couple of days of down time since I now have an autoimmune disease.

What is an autoimmune disease? Well, I could give you some long medical answer, but in real people terms, this means my immune system has gone rouge – instead of protecting me, it has turned on me and is trying to destroy me from the inside out. There is no cure for autoimmune disease. Treatment for my rogue immune system is immune suppression, which involves medications used to turn the immune system response off. Many patients take low dose chemotherapy just for the side effect of immune suppression.

So, because I take multiple medications to suppress my immune system, it opens my body up to infection. I “catch” things easier than the healthy public now. Cold and flu season is terrifying for patients like me. There is no way for us to hibernate during peak seasons so we have to do our best to protect ourselves – which is why my survival kit is what it is. Many patients have jobs to show up to, children to care for and obligations beyond our chronic illness, which means hibernation is impossible. While healthy people load up on vitamin C and immune boosters during peak seasons, we have to continue on our immune suppression medication because our life depends on it since many autoimmune diseases can affect the heart, lungs and vital organs. Building our immune system during peak seasons would defeat our yearlong battle with our rouge immune systems. Building our immune system would be like providing ammunition to the enemy.

It isn’t just “catching” a virus or inflection that terrifies me. Yes, I am more susceptible to illness since I have a suppressed immune system, but getting sick involves more than just the acute illness itself. You see, a healthy person is better in seven to 10 days, but it can take my body weeks to recover from just a common cold. And it is the weeks to recover that are most upsetting to me.

While I am sick with acute illness, I have to stop the medication that treats my autoimmune disease. A patient can’t suppress the immune system when sick with infection. Upon any sign of infection, autoimmune patients have to stop their treatment to allow the immune system to recover so the patient has a chance to fight the infection or virus with their own immune system. During the period of recovery from the acute issue, it gives my immune system time to recover and begin to attack my body once again. A common cold can turn into a full rheumatoid arthritis (RA) flare for me. And antibiotics, although sometimes necessary, are just added ammunition to my already dysfunctional immune system.

Once recovered from the acute illness, I am left with a body that does not function for daily tasks and joints that hurt. These daily tasks can include showering, caring for myself and even walking. The RA flare will be four times worse than the acute illness I had been fighting weeks before. During this flare I will feel every joint in my body, my eyes will be inflamed and hurt, causing blurred vision. My lungs will also be inflamed, which will cause chest pain and shortness of breath. I have to begin trying to combat my chronic illness from scratch and it can take months to get my immune system back in check with my medication once I am able to resume it.

This is why I have become afraid of germs. It isn’t necessarily the acute illness itself, it is the recovery period that is overwhelming to me. So during peak seasons of cold and flu, I have to trust that those around me are doing what they are supposed to be doing. I have to believe that people are staying home when running a fever, covering their mouth and nose when they cough and sneeze, and avoiding social functions that are not obligations when ill. Although I try to wear a mask when I am out and use hand sanitizer during these peak seasons, it is not 100 percent effective. I can only rely on the courtesy of others.

So please, if you are reading this and are currently fighting an infection, please think twice before you go to work, go out to dinner, go grocery shopping, or attend social activities. I know some things like going to the pharmacy for your prescription is unavoidable, but being courteous about your active infection while you are out is much appreciated by people like me that have no choice but to be a germaphobe.

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Gettyimage by: Dirima

Originally published: January 19, 2018
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