It’s the time of year when people tend to get sick. 

Few of us are lucky enough to get through the whole winter without having to fight off illness. For most of the population, getting sick is more of an inconvenience than anything else, but there are good reasons to take precautions, and to take steps that protect others. For the very young, for the elderly, and for people who are already ill or immune-suppressed, even an ordinary cold can develop into serious illness.

Two common illnesses this time of year are breathing problems such as pneumonia, and stomach or bowel upset. Both of these illnesses can be contagious. Pneumonia and stomach or bowel upsets can be caused by either bacteria or viruses. While they can be prevented in the same ways, there are differences in how they can be treated once a person becomes ill.

The best ways to prevent illness are easy and free.

• Wash your hands with warm soapy water often, especially before eating. Teach kids to do the same.

• Use the crook of your elbow to cover sneezes and coughs. This is more likely to prevent the spread of germs than using your hand to cover your mouth, or not covering your mouth or nose at all.

• Clean high-use surfaces such as door knobs, light switches, and faucet handles frequently.

• If you’re sick, stay home! Remember that there are people in your community for whom a cold can develop into serious illness requiring hospitalization.

• Get vaccinated to protect against influenza virus. The influenza virus adapts and changes every year. Getting vaccinated can help prevent, or lessen the severity of an influenza infection.

Most illnesses, whether caused by a virus or by a bacteria, last roughly two weeks. Some stomach “flus” can be as short-lived as a few days. For either variety of illness, there are simple, and important steps to take in order to support a return to good health.

• Get lots of rest. It’s hard in this day and age to stop multi-tasking and just rest, but it’s very important to do so. NOT resting can mean being ill for much longer as your body struggles to get well again.

• Drink lots of water. Keeping your body hydrated helps the healing process. Avoid soda, caffeine and alcohol if you can.

• Feed yourself with healthy food. Sometimes being sick means we can’t or don’t want to eat, but unless the illness is stomach-related, do your best to give your body the fuel it needs to fight off illness.

• If over-the-counter medications are helpful, take them. Being comfortable (resting) is a key part of getting well. Be sure to follow the directions on the container, and if you have any concerns about taking something, or interactions between drugs, talk to a health care provider or pharmacist.

• Monitor your health closely. If you need to talk to a health care provider, do so. Use urgent care thoughtfully, only if necessary, and help keep emergency rooms functioning as intended by only using them in true emergencies.

Regardless of whether you’re traveling, visiting, or hunkering down by the fire with a good book this holiday season, take steps to keep yourself and your community in good health this winter and throughout the year. 

Dr. Rachel Wood is with the Thurston County Public Health and a practicing family medicine doctor in Olympia.

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