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July 17, 2006 | by  | in Opinion |
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Student Health

Prevention of coughs, colds and influenza that can be a headache for students.

Welcome to the winter trimester, also the time of year that respiratory viruses tend to cause havoc on campus.

University students tend to be more susceptible to respiratory tract infections (RTIs) than other adults because they often live in shared accommodation. When people live in close contact they are more likely to catch viruses (such as colds and influenza for example) from each other. Not only are the symptoms of RTIs such as fever, sore throats, aches and pains, runny nose and a productive cough painful and annoying, they can also affect your academic performance and marks. A survey conducted by the American College Health Association (ACHA), which examined the impact of RTIs such as colds, flu, sore throat and sinus symptoms found that 30% of students reported that infections like these had a negative impact on their academic performance.

Colds and the flu are spread in small droplets dispersed in the air by sneezing, coughing or by hand-to-hand contact. Rubbing your nose, mouth or eyes after contact allows the virus to enter the body. Your risk of infection increases with stress, lack of physical activity, smoking, poor nutrition and fatigue.

It is recognised that life as a student can be a challenge, but there are a few things you can do to help to enhance your immune system and in doing so increase your resistance from infection. Take care of yourself by getting enough sleep – eight hours a night is usually recommended, although this can be different according to each individual. Some people need more while others function fine on slightly less. Aim for at least thirty minutes of physical activity everyday, keep well hydrated with water, aim for a diet containing vitamin rich foods, and pace yourself to avoid exposing yourself to too much stress.

Another vital thing you can do to help protect yourself and help reduce the spread of infections such as colds and influenza is washing your hands. Hand washing is one of the most basic and effective ways to prevent the spread of infection between people and thereby promote healthier communities.

An article published last year in the Journal of American College Health reported on a study involving 400 students from four residential halls. The research participants in two of the halls were exposed to a health campaign designed to increase awareness regarding the importance of hand washing as a way to avoid respiratory infections. All the residents in the two halls that were under study were provided with a personal supply of an alcohol based hand-gel. The same gel was also placed in the bathrooms and in the dining room. The other two halls were a control group and did not receive any direct information regarding hand washing. It was found that the study group reported fewer cold and flu illnesses than those in the control group and they also missed fewer lectures and had less time off work.

Hand washing is definitely something you can do to protect your health. Although what follows may seem very basic information it is still crucial and important. Worldwide health authorities are trying to get people ready for an influenza pandemic. It is recognised that it is not a question of if a pandemic will occur but when it will occur. Hand washing is going to be one of the main ways to reduce the spread of infection.

The recommended way to wash your hands to help reduce the transmission of infection is –
Turn the water on and wait until the water is warm-to-hot (but don’t burn yourself!) It is important to remember that the tap can be considered ‘contaminated’ at all times.
Apply soap to wet hands and lather well.
Wash the whole of both hands thoroughly including your wrists, between your fingers, around your nail beds, and the front and the back of your hands.
It is advised that you wash in this manner for twenty seconds, which is between one and two choruses of Happy Birthday, depending on how fast you sing. This is important because regular soap and water does not actually kill bacteria. It creates a slippery surface that allows the bacteria to ‘slide off’ the skin.
Rinse your hands thoroughly with water and leave the water tap running.
Pat your hands dry with a paper towel, then use the same paper towel to turn off the tap to avoid recontamination of your now clean hands with the tap that is always considered dirty.

Recommended times to wash your hands include –
After going to the toilet,
After blowing or wiping your nose, or after coughing or sneezing
Before and after preparing or eating food Whenever your hands are dirty, eg after handling rubbish, caring of animals, using exercise machines etc
When there is no soap or water available, one alternative is to use an alcohol hand gel, which you can buy at a pharmacy or supermarket. However if your hands are obviously dirty, soap and water is your best option.
So take care and even if you wash your hands a couple of times more than usual each day you may be able to reduce your risk of developing a cold or influenza.

FOR INFORMATION REGARDING WAYS TO PREPARE FOR AN INFLUENZA PANDEMIC YOU MAY LIKE TO VISIT THE FOLLOWING NEW ZEALAND BASED WEBSITES, INCLUDING ONE ON THE STUDENT PAGE AT VUW. THESE WEBSITES ALSO HAVE LINKS TO INTERNATIONAL SITES SUCH AS THE WORLD HEALTH ORGANISATION AND THE CENTRES FOR DISEASE CONTROL.

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the friendly Student Health Service Nurse!

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