Getting through winter takes some planning

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Frances Stebbins
Columnist

If you’ve lived through as many winters as I have, you know that the months of January and February—often March too in our mountains—are a time to be especially careful.

Edie Naughton, a mid-life registered nurse who works in Community Outreach for the Carilion medical complex, knows it too. That’s why she’s eager to give to church groups in the valley her hour-long presentation, “Surviving Winter.” Her advice includes much based on later medical findings that modify what was formerly offered in schools and through health care books.

Early in the holiday period, Salem Area Ecumenical Ministries (SAEM) sponsored Naughton’s program for a small group at a church.  She had also given it for a coalition of Williamson Road area congregations who work together to meet some human needs on the north side of the valley.

Naughton updated us on many things. Following are a few that struck me. Most apply to people of any age, but especially those in their 60s and up. As the nurse pointed out, people are living much longer than they once did and they die of different ailments. Some now survive cancer for years by receiving the powerful drugs that may keep it at bay. Heart and lung conditions – always fatal 80 years ago- can now be controlled into the tenth decade.

Children in day care learn to wash their hands for several seconds –with ordinary soap and water. They no longer are taught to cover sneezes with their hands but instead to turn their head into an elbow. The popular hand sanitizers are not very effective on the viruses that cause colds and influenza.

“The flu” –the real illness, not the nasty but brief digestive tract  bug common around the holidays when people are often in crowds and may eat unusual or contaminated food—is especially bad for those near the beginning and end of life. Body aches are common with many infections and accompany both colds and flu.

True flu comes on fast, produces a fever and may take three weeks to get over fully. Victims are usually too weak to drag out to school or work, but they are contagious for a day before feeling sick. If tempted to get out before being well, they may develop sinus or throat infections or bronchitis and pneumonia.

That’s why, said Naughton, everyone needs to get a flu shot annually even when the manufactured material –not “live” virus any more—doesn’t turn out to be as effective as hoped.

Though flu shots are heavily promoted by pharmacies in early fall, it’s better to wait until November since full  protection lasts only a few weeks. Right now is when it’s most needed. A personal physician may recommend two shots months apart especially for older people with chronic conditions which make them sicker. (Years ago my doctor for my severe sinus infections had me do this with good results.)

The immune system is more important than people used to realize. According to the nurse, a lot can be done to keep it working to resist diseases. People who live with chronic conditions are aware of this and cannot take certain vaccines like flu shots, helpful as these might be.

The “wonder drugs” antibiotics that knocked out children’s’ infections two generations ago aren’t as reliable as they once were.  We hear today of mersa and staph infections that have overwhelmed the weaker bodies of older adults. Said the speaker, “Don’t take any more antibiotics than you have to.”

On keeping the immune system working well, don’t skip meals but eat three light ones daily and snack on nuts, dried or fresh fruits, cheese or peanut butter. Commercially canned juices may be too full of sugar.

Antibiotics again. Take all that the doctor prescribes to make sure the infection is gone. Saving them for another illness or, worse, someone else to take, can lead to worse problems.

Of fires and keeping warm, Naughton emphasized that heaters must be plugged directly into a wall outlet with no use of extension cords and must be no closer than three feet to fabric like a curtain or bedspread. Older people experiencing normal forgetfulness must be aware of the danger burning candles pose. {I once had a tortoise-shell cat that extinguished the Advent wreath candles with her paw removing their danger}

Loose sleeves and leisure pants are in style for women night now and may catch fire on hearths or even a hot burner, Naughton warned.

When people clearing snow or other outdoor activities in cold weather start becoming confused in their speech or movements, it’s a dangerous sign of hypothermia, freezing to death.

Finally, there is such a condition as “SAD,” short for Seasonal Affective Disorder, when being shut in on sunless days can develop into disabling depression.  The remedy is planning to get out and be with others even for only a few minutes daily. Group exercises or games at a church or senior center work for some. The spring sun will shine again!