This is a story about a cosmic joke. It’s a detective story. It’s a story about self-awareness. Most of all, it’s a story about why I got the common cold eight times in 2018 and what I did about it.
Every year, I go through a really elaborate goal-setting process at the New Year. I publish it on my blog and then I post quarterly check-ins. Part of my annual review has included choosing a mantra or theme for the upcoming year, and last year it was ‘PAUSE AND BREATHE.’ I’ve been regretting this.
What I intended was that I would spend more time in deliberation, making sure I was using strategy to plan how I spent my time. I thought this would help me to be both better rested and more productive. Maybe I’d also get into meditation, something that has eluded me in the past.
What actually happened was that I kept getting sick, and getting sick, and getting sick. I had more time to pause (on bed rest) and focus on my breathing (or lack thereof) than I ever have in my life.
After the eighth go-round, I was understandably pretty frustrated with this. I called the advice nurse, who put me on with a physician, who ordered some labs and suggested that I get a physical. I managed to see a doctor in person the very next day, and this is how it went.
I tend to see doctors as peers. That’s because we’re typically both Type A alpha nerds. We might have been study partners if we had known each other in school. Most of my doctors have been women. We wind up being about the same age (mid-forties), fit, ambitious, brainy, reality-based, and dealing with the same problems of trying to turn a 24-hour day into 36 or 48. Often my doctor of the moment will wind up taking advice from ME, like one who started doing century bike rides, another who got into triathlon, and another who signed up for kickboxing. This particular one will most likely be going home to talk FIRE (financial independence, retire early) with her husband.
“I’ve had the common cold eight times this year, five times just since August, and I’m starting to be concerned that it’s more than just a cold.” I went on to catalog some of my alternate hypotheses: immune system problems, allergies, asthma, an abnormal sinus? That’s the problem with common symptoms like coughing, headache, or a skin rash. Is it a fungus, bacterial, viral, tuberculosis, mold, cancer, did I inhale a LEGO brick in 1979? I go in with the understanding that a diagnosis starts with guesswork and thrives on data. I bring the verifiable, testable, quantifiable metrics that I know how to track.
The blood tests indicate that my immune system is functioning normally. That’s great news in one sense and a bummer in another. If there’s nothing WRONG-wrong with me, then it must be something common, and if my real problem is the common cold, I’m hosed.
The doctor goes on to rule out allergies and asthma. Also good news, especially because like most people I’d rather not have to choose between my health, my sanity, and my pets.
We spend a few minutes talking about hygiene and hand-washing. Fifteen seconds, right? I mention that I want to make sure I’m not somehow skipping a step, like everyone else is using an extra soap nobody told me about. Nope. Wash your hands thoroughly and often, don’t touch your face, got it.
“What kind of work do you do?” That’s a fair question. It stands to reason that a hermit in a cave won’t have the same exposure risk as the couriers for the clinical laboratory where I used to work, or a kindergarten teacher, or a janitor at the airport.
I mention that I work at home, but I do ride the bus and travel a lot. I read that people who ride mass transit have a six times greater chance of getting the common cold. My doctor finds this impressive, and I can tell that she’s going to check this out in the literature at her first opportunity. We talk out the idea of wearing a surgical mask on the bus, and she suggests maybe gloves as well. She says that when someone coughs, it can spread over 25 feet, and hang in the air for a few minutes. “Someone could cough, and you could walk around the corner and never even see them, and you could pick it up.”
That means every bus coach, every airplane, every train car, every escalator...
Then she asks about my stress level. Um. Well. My husband has been traveling, and I only see him three days a week, and my dog just got diagnosed with a liver tumor... and I haven’t really been sleeping well all year...
I share about my diet, that we make an effort to eat significant amounts of cruciferous vegetables. We’ll eat an entire head of cauliflower or broccoli, for example. “In one sitting?” she asks, incredulous. Yup, in one sitting. My previous lab work is exemplary for lipids, glucose, etc.
The doctor tells me about a colleague who got sick twice a month for nine months. She worked in the hospital, she had two little kids, and she wasn’t getting enough rest. She thought there was something seriously wrong with her, but it was just her exposure to sick people combined with stress and lack of sleep.
What it comes down to is that no matter how healthy my diet is, how scrupulous I am in washing my hands and avoiding touching my face, how big our home air filter is, I’m still vulnerable to the common cold. I’m vulnerable because I don’t get enough sleep, because my stress level is too high, and because I regularly place myself in major transit hubs.
A quarter-million people a day go through the LA Metro, and around 600,000 a day go through LAX, an airport through which I travel maybe a dozen times a year. All those people are breathing and touching things. The bus I ride the most often happens to be the airport route, compounding the problem.
I suggest a full-body sneeze guard, then realize that this would be more like a phone booth or a giant hamster ball. This helps me to realize that wearing a paper mask (and maybe gloves) might be slightly less weird.
The thing about wearing a surgical mask in public is that it changes everything. People can and will sit down right next to you and cough, yeah. Other than that, it’s almost like dressing as a nun. You don’t get panhandled, you don’t get catcalled, street harassers ignore you for once. People won’t even ask you what time it is. It’s the closest thing I’ve found for a universal symbol that says “please leave me alone.” In other words, it suits me.
This is what I’ve learned in my quest to understand that dastardly curse known as the common cold. If you have a moist (runny, sniffling) nose, it makes you more vulnerable to the cold virus. A supplement with B6 and zinc really does seem to shorten cold duration and help with the draggy, flu-ey feeling, as backed up by research from Oregon State University. Hand-washing is extremely important but it won’t protect you from inhaling other people’s coughed and sneezed airborne germs. Sleep really does matter. It may be the key component of a functional immune system.
I’ve done what I always do when faced with a frustrating health problem. I go to the research. I read as much as I can. I track my own symptoms and try to analyze my behaviors, assuming that I am doing something incorrectly or that there is a factor within my control. When I go to the doctor, I tend not to get the “final answer,” but I do have an opportunity to check my hunches with the cutting edge of professional opinion. Talking to doctors has honed my analytical methods. It wasn’t a doctor’s specific advice that helped me beat my thyroid nodule, or migraine, or night terrors, but it was learning from the way that doctors search for clues and speculate as to a diagnosis. The difference is that I have 24 hours a day to analyze myself and my health metrics, and nobody other than me does. Nobody else has the motivation that I do to change my behaviors and work toward better health.
Now we’re going into 2019. I’ll pause and breathe as I work on my annual review and my plans for the upcoming year. I’ll go through the winter with my new knowledge. If you see me in a surgical mask, wave hello, but please don’t give me a high five.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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