I get sick twice a year — in late September and early March, right around the time when the daily amount of sunlight changes at the equinox. Other than the semiannual cold and mild allergies in August, I’m in pretty good health for the rest of the year.

While it’s nice to know when I can expect a cold to be coming on — I think it has to do with my Vitamin D levels — it doesn’t make being sick any easier, especially since these times of year coincide with a pretty heavy load of schoolwork. I can try to be prepared — by carrying tissues, eating even more fruits and veggies than usual, and fitting in adequate hours of sleep every night — but it still sucks for that week or so when I’m not up for much other than lying around in bed yet still need to drag myself to class.

According to Lisa Sturm, managing director of the infection control and epidemiology at the University of Michigan Health System, September and October are when University Health Services sees the greatest number of illnesses among students. People are coming back to campus from all over, resulting in a general trading of germs going on in town. People touch the doors of classrooms, desktops, keyboards and public-access computing stations, the spines of books in the libraries, maybe a squirrel as they’re crossing campus, the backs of seats — the list is endless. And on every one of those surfaces there are plenty of germs to be concerned about.

So what’s the best way to avoid getting sick?

Sturm recommends a couple of common-sense measures that, for all their simplicity, get overlooked far too often: washing your hands regularly and being sure to cover your cough. “Your best defense is your own personal hand hygiene,” she said.

In other words, if you don’t have a sleeve or handkerchief to cough into, catching a sneeze in your hands is far preferable to nothing at all. Just be sure to wash your hands soon after, since you don’t want to then spread those germs onto other people. It’s a good idea to carry a pocket-sized bottle of hand sanitizer in your purse or backpack, so it’ll be on hand if you need it.

And in the present day more than ever, it’s important to keep up to date on vaccines, including the seasonal flu vaccine, as flu season runs for pretty much the entire academic year. Perhaps just as important are vaccinations against meningitis, which Sturm says is surprisingly common among Michigan’s student body.

It’s impossible to avoid germs and viruses altogether, of course, and most of us do tend to fall sick at some point during the school year. But, by keeping yourself in good health and keeping your hands clean, you can reduce your chances. And if you do find yourself sick, Sturm recommends “the old adage: rest, chicken noodle soup and fluids” as the best treatment for the common cold.

While it’s understandable that no one wants to take time off for being sick and risk missing out on important material, Sturm says it’s sometimes necessary. If you’re feverish or sick enough to vomit; if you’re blowing your nose every other minute and can’t stop sneezing; or if you have diarrhea, you should probably stay home. The good news is that with bed rest and a few doses of chicken noodle soup, most mild colds clear up within a few days. For more serious illnesses, it may become necessary to seek out professional health care from UHS or another healthcare provider.

UMHS staff, Sturm says, are required to take time off if they’re sick, and aren’t allowed to return to work until they remain free of symptoms for 24 hours or more. Perhaps that sort of policy would serve our student body well, as it would ensure that the most active germs would be contained within our apartments, dorm rooms, houses or lofts. Of course, staying home poses another challenge, as your being ill requires roommates, housemates, friends and significant others to dance around you for fear that whatever you have might be catching.

But at the end of the day, if you’re truly too sick to attend class and perform well, you’ll probably be glad you refrained from hauling yourself across campus, just so you could sneeze on classmates, doorknobs desks and any bold squirrels who came too near. “You’re not helping anybody, and you’re not helping yourself either. You’re not resting,” Sturm says. “Please don’t do us any favors! … Stay home.”

Ultimately, only you can make the decision, but when you’re that kind of sick, you’ll probably know. For me a couple of weeks ago, the need to stay home was signaled by a lasting headache, runny nose and a nap that took up most of my Friday afternoon. That day, I opted to trade homework for bed rest, and on Saturday I did it again. By Monday, I was ready to return to classes and the general buzz of activity on campus, but I was also really glad I’d taken time for rest when I needed to.

And trust me — if you’re sick enough to be wondering whether you should sleep in, chances are you’re leaning the right way. E-mail your professors to let them know you’re not feeling well, and ask whether there might be extra-credit opportunities you could use to make up your attendance. Then kick back with a tall glass of orange juice, a handful of tissues and maybe some of next week’s assigned reading. Or, y’know, just take a nap. I’m pretty sure you’ll be glad you did.

Susan LaMoreaux can be reached at susanpl@umich.edu.

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