The year 2009 is almost upon us, and with all the advances in medicine happening every day, it's a wonder scientists have not discovered a cure for the influenza virus. However, there is no need for panic yet. Skip the sneezes, sniffles and chills. Avoid the aches and misery. Take preventative measures this flu season and stay healthy.

One of the easiest and most effective ways to defend against the influenza virus is through vaccination. Dr. Emily Gibson, director of the Student Health Center, emphasized the value of the flu shot for college students.

“College students have a great deal of exposure to viral respiratory illness, particularly influenza, because of living in close quarters and spending hours every day in classrooms where many people are coughing,” she said. “The vaccine gives immunity for at least three months to reduce the risk of significant symptoms if exposed.”

Margaret Mamolen, a physician at the Student Health Center, said cold and flu symptoms can often be similar—sore throat, runny nose and a cough—but that the flu usually strikes suddenly and can cause more serious symptoms, such as high fever and chills. The flu virus may also leave its victims more vulnerable to severe illnesses.

“Anybody can get the flu and even be more susceptible to getting pneumonia afterwards, in addition to losing a week to feeling miserable,” she said.

Because the influenza virus is constantly morphing, Mamolen said it is important to get up-to-date vaccines every year to reduce the risk of contracting the virus. The Student Health Center offers vaccines to students for $18 during scheduled times.

For the needle-shy or those looking for all the help they can get fighting the flu, there are other ways to battle the bug.
Jackie Stein, health educator and coordinator of the Lifestyle Advisor Program, said students can stay healthy by understanding a handful of simple facts and taking preventative measures in response.

Viruses can live for up to three weeks on a surface such as keyboards, doorknobs and desks. Keeping this in mind, “it's a good reminder that regardless of what you've touched, try not to touch your eyes, nose and mouth because those are the places where you get bacteria and viruses into your body,” Stein said.

A human sneeze can travel up to 3 feet, possibly carrying with it microscopic bits of influenza. Stein's advice? Encourage others to sneeze into their elbows—not their hands—and to use hand sanitizer and thoroughly wash their hands whenever possible.

Eight hours of sleep is essential. “Not getting enough sleep totally weakens our immune systems so it takes less viral load to get us sick,” Stein said. “Our bodies can fight off a lot of viruses, but if we're not getting enough sleep, anything that is out there is going to get us.”

Lastly, people are often most contagious before they've actually fallen ill. In many cases, people can spread the influenza virus up to 24 hours before experiencing symptoms themselves. Thus, in order to stave off a potentially debilitating week of illness, she warned against sharing utensils and cups with others, including those used for drinking games. “A lot of people think that when they're playing drinking games, the alcohol somehow kills the bacteria. That is a total myth,” she said.

Despite the most aggressive preventative campaigns, some people inevitably fall victim to influenza. Dr. Gibson said students should call the Student Health Center within 48 hours to begin antiviral medication, which reduces the length and severity of the illness.

“After 48 hours, there is little we can do other than fever reducers, fluids and rest,” she said. Those unlucky enough to contract the influenza virus this season may find themselves bedridden for up to a week. Lauren Stanley, a Western senior and Lifestyle Advisor, said contracting influenza can put some serious strain on academics.

“When I get the flu and it gets so bad that I can't go to class, it definitely makes my grades suffer,” Stanley said.

She echoed the advice of Dr. Gibson and Stein, pointing out the importance of a good night's sleep and a well-balanced diet in overcoming the illness and staying healthy for the remainder of the year.

“A good diet, with plenty of variety from all food groups, is essential to a good, healthy immune system. Staying well hydrated is important too,” Dr. Gibson said. “Avoiding dehydrating substances, such as excessive caffeine, alcohol and avoiding inhaling smoke, either yourself or secondhand, is important during flu season.”

Despite all the preventative advice, it is foreseeable that many Western students will suffer the aches and pains associated with the flu this season. The Student Health Center estimates that more than 1,000 students on campus suffer from the influenza virus every year. However, along with the Wellness Outreach Center, they hope to prevent as many cases as possible. As the ancient Greek physician Herophilus put it, “When health is absent,
wisdom cannot reveal itself, art cannot manifest, strength cannot fight, wealth becomes useless and intelligence
cannot be applied.”