It was December 2002, I was halfway through the California International Marathon, and my friend Sharon was running away from me as my body was already shutting down and my pace had slowed to a near-walk. But unlike in previous marathons, this wasn’t due to under-training as much as it was to another problem: I was sick. Some coworkers gave me a cold five days earlier, and despite resorting to some rather drastic home remedies such as trying to eat a whole onion like an apple, I was still not healthy by the time of the race.
It was here after running my slowest (non-Ironman) marathon ever that I resolved to Not Get Sick Again.
How I fared ever since that moment, when I made it a goal each year to not get sick? This is how many times I got sick since 2003:
- 2003: 1. Got sick in May almost immediately after getting a tetanus shot my doctor insisted I get before he’d vouch for my good health in my application for Paris-Brest-Paris. Exhibited flu-like symptoms for three days.
- 2004: 0
- 2005: 1. Was sick for three days in December after all three of my other housemates had gotten sick. This was just one week before I moved into a new place of my own. Bummer, almost made it.
- 2006: 1. Got sick in August, again for three or four days. Soon after I came back from Vietnam with an already depressed immune system, a friend of a friend came to stay at my place for a day en route to Michigan from Oregon. The dude was not only really sick, but was coughing a ton and infecting everything with his germs. Despite wiping down every surface, doorknob, and computer with alcohol soon after he left, I got his cold a couple days afterwards.
- 2007: 0
- 2008: 1 Got sick right before the Tour Divide. Looks like traveling for three months and not eating so healthily on the road finally did me in.
- 2009: 1. Caught a cold around January 1st, and then laryngitis, after being exposed to no less than 5 sick people during the holidays. Major inconvenience (especially not being able to talk for 5 days!) while traveling through the South—need to review ways to not get sick in the first place again.
- 2010: 3. Got a mild cold in March after 411 days after someone with one sat next to me. In May I got strep after running 100k and germ-swapping with my girlfriend. This turned into a sinus infection, but was able to recover after lots of nasal irrigation, garlic and no antibiotics. In October I had a mysterious fever and nausea from October 13-15, but fortunately recovered in time for the Boulder 100 the next day. Definitely not a great year on the staying healthy front, but I did seem to successfully prevent getting sick two more times (when my girlfriend was) with garlic, echinacea, vitamins, etc.
- 2011: 1. Got the flu a couple weeks after getting back from Guatemala. I blame an unhealthy guy whose hand I shook. Need to be better about washing hands.
- 2012: 1. Got allergies after biking home from the rental car place after driving back from CA on March 19. After three weeks, allergies turned into a sinus infection on one side of my nose (plus the worst migraine I’ve ever had). No home remedy, including colloidal silver, oil of oregano, and nasal irrigation could shake the infection. Ultimately went into The Little Clinic, got a 10-day supply of antibiotics (Aumentin) and Flonase, which cleared up the sinus infection in ~2 days.
It is notable that in the 428 days prior to getting sick, I warded off colds I felt coming on with the home remedies below (including the garlic-in-the-nostrils trick) twice.
- Longest healthy streak: May 2003-December 2005 (32 months)
- 2nd longest healthy streak: August 30, 2006-June 8, 2008 (648 days)
So there you have it: before 2010, I was sick five times in the seven years (or once every 1.4 years), with a long streak of 2.7 years. Not too shabby considering that from 1999-2002, I seemed to get sick three or four times a year.
How did I do it? Below are strategies I follow to prevent getting sick, and the steps I take to speed recovery when I do.
Illness Prevention Strategies
- Avoid sick people as much as practical. For example, cancel casual meetings with friends who are sick (this gives them more recovery time), and take notice of who is sick in a room and try to keep your distance. Of course, sometimes keeping your distance from sick people is impossible. Hence, the rest of the strategies are important.
- Wash your hands frequently, especially after shaking hands with a sick person or before eating. Normal soap and water, with maybe 10-15 seconds of gentle-but-thorough scrubbing, is fine. I actually prefer not to use or buy antibacterial soap due to the potential for the development of super-bacteria.
- Do not touch your face, especially your eyes, nose, and mouth. For the eyes and nose, use fresh tissue or rinse with water—and only after washing your hands. For emergencies such as a bug flying getting into your eye while cycling, I’d rather rinse the eye out with a water bottle or even use my sleeve to get rid of the bug than to touch the eye with a finger.
- Eat healthily (see my post on quick and healthy meals for examples). In particular, eat lots of fresh vegetables and fruits (for their vitamins and antioxidants) and avoid sugar (except that naturally occurring in fruit—NOT juice!!) and grains, especially white flour. Sugar and grains depress the immune system since glucose has the same molecular structure as Vitamin C (which is needed by white blood cells to destroy bacteria and viruses), and they compete for entry and storage into cells.
- Reduce stress levels. This may require reforming one’s personality (e.g., stop being a worry-wort), simplifying your life, or putting a greater priority on relaxation. De-stressing can also be achieved through exercise, yoga, meditation, or, say, taking a bath or getting a massage.
- Get enough sleep. The amount per person varies but for most people this seems to be around eight hours. If you have a large sleep debt you may even need more than this.
- Keep your house clean and free of toxins and allergens. Not only may this involve more housecleaning (I advocate using all-natural cleaners, like simple soap, vinegar, and baking soda instead of the more toxic and expensive commercial stuff), but perhaps opening the windows more to let fresh air in or getting some live plants.
- If you feel a cold coming on, you can try gurgling salt water or dripping a few drops of hydrogen peroxide in your ears (say, with q-tips). Not sure of the effectiveness of these two methods but many people swear they work.
Illness Recovery Strategies
- Do not go into work and instead stay home and recover. First of all, this is just being considerate as to not get your coworkers sick. But resting and taking care of yourself instead of working and stressing will help you recuperate quicker.
- Do not eat sugar or grains. See the section above.
- Drink lots of fluids (e.g., tea). Steamy soup (e.g., vegetables in chicken broth) is good especially since it contains electrolytes (e.g., soup). Some “experts” recommend sports drinks for that reason but I think that is counter-productive due to their sugar content (e.g., high-fructose corn syrup).
- Take echinacea. It boosts the immune system.
- Irrigate your nose with a mild salt water solution. I use a Grossan Nasal Irrigation Device for this and swear by it. I first got it for a sinus infection in 2001 that wouldn’t clear up despite taking antibiotics from a doctor. It really helped alleviate congestion and runny nose symptoms and cleaned out the nose. It’s amazing what comes out of one’s sinuses with it. I haven’t got a sinus infection since, but still use the device for the rare cold.
- Do not blow your nose too hard if you have the cold or a flu. Dr. Murray Grossan (the inventor of the Grossan Nasal Irrigation Device) says that a common cause of sinus infections is blowing the nose too hard. It is better to suck in the mucous and swallow (yes, I know that sounds gross!) and/or dry the inside of the nose by inserting rolled up tissue than to blow really hard.
- Go for an easy bike ride if you have cold symptoms limited to the head. Doing so helps expand the sinuses and makes it easier to breathe. It may stimulate the immune system if done at a really easy pace (riding too hard will suppress it).
- Try consuming raw garlic and onions, hot sauce (e.g., tobacco sauce, wasabi, horseradish sauce), Vitamin C & E pills, and/or zinc. I can’t claim they will make a big difference but in theory they would help.
- (Added 2010): Insert the garlic pieces in your nose and breathe the garlic vapors while you sleep. Garlic acts as a low-grade antibiotic and virus killer and I think that garlic vapors in the sinuses are more effective than eating garlic. At least this seemed very effective each time I got sick.
- If you are religious, try prayer. If you are not, think affirming, positive thoughts.
What Does Not Work To Cure or Prevent Illness
- One thing that does not help is seeing a doctor for a common cold or other trivial problems. In these cases, what can the doctor do? Most likely, he will consult with you for five minutes, maybe prescribe some expensive drugs and antibiotics just to make you go away but won’t do anything to help (antibiotics are useless against viruses and should be reserved for extreme bacterial infections), and then send you and our insurance companies a large bill. The good doctors will tell you to just go home and get some rest as only your body can heal itself, but not too many doctors would be so “unaggressive” as many people will feel cheated if they were given nothing but obvious advice (and no drugs) in exchange for a high medical bill. Spare yourself and our health care system some money and time—don’t go to a doctor for trivial illnesses and injuries. Especially with all the information available on the web, you should be able to take better control of your health.
- Another thing that does not work is not going outside into the cold. One perpetual myth is that cold weather will give one a cold. Nonsense. A cold is caused by viruses, not cold temperatures. In my entire life, I cannot think of one instance where I got sick due to being in even in conditions ripe for hypothermia. The outdoors is actually safer than the indoors from viruses, as viruses get trapped inside buildings whereas they get really diluted outside.
- Taking a bunch of vaccines also is of dubious value. Indeed, I have met several people who claim their kids developed autism soon after being injected vaccines. As I mentioned above, the only time I got sick in 2003 was right after getting injected with a tetanus shot. More recently, my friend Rhea could not lift her left arm for two months without pain after her doctor (at his insistence) had her injected with a vaccine for cervical cancer in her shoulder. Some of these problems may have been caused by thimerosal (which thank goodness is being phased out of many vaccines in North America and Europe), but still, I’d say “no” to drugs unless one has a really compelling reason to get one, such as visiting a part of a world where many people are dying of malaria.
- Taking a bunch of antibiotics is also of dubious value when taken unnecessarily. In fact, they kill good bacteria along with bad bacteria and weaken the immune system. I had a doctor who was super aggressive in prescribing them to me for poison oak and, later, sinusitis in 1999, and after that, it seemed like I was getting sick every three months. Antibiotics can be useful but make sure the cause of your illness is bacteria, not viruses.