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Seven Doctors on What They Do When They Get Sick

Advice from a primary care physician, a rheumatologist, a dermatologist, a urologist, a psychologist, a doctor of physics and a doctor of mathematics. Because all doctors are basically the same, right?

With cold and flu season in full bloom, many of us are now dragging our coughing, sniffling asses to the doctor for recommendations on how to get better. But of course, doctors, being human beings, are also susceptible to sickness, perhaps especially so since they have to deal with infected people and their bacterial leftovers all day long.

It raises the question, since we turn to doctors for help getting better, where do the doctors themselves turn? To find out, I asked an assortment of doctors of varying specialties how they treat themselves when they come down with the sickness.

Ian Nelligan, primary care physician: I’m actually sick right now. My first and foremost go-to is to not infect others, so I called into meetings today instead of going in person. I did see one patient today, who absolutely had to be seen, but I try not to spread it around. Hand hygiene, coughing into my sleeve, coughing into my elbow — those are tricks to avoid the spread. By hand hygiene, I mean washing my hands frequently, before and after touching anything, and then wiping down surfaces I’m interacting with and trying to limit others’ exposure to that. Then of course, always get a flu shot, which I did as soon as possible.

Beyond prevention, the treatment for the common cold is symptomatic, so you treat whatever symptoms are the most bothersome to you at that time. Kind of the baseline for all common colds, regardless of your symptoms, is hydration, hydration, hydration and lots of rest. I like hot water and lemon, which has a little vitamin C and is soothing for a sore throat.

I’m a big fan of vitamin C and zinc. Those are two supplements that boost the immune system. There’s not a lot of medical evidence about it, but… [At this moment, Nelligan’s wife, who is also a doctor, chimes in from the background, further emphasizing that there’s little evidence for the use of vitamin C and zinc to treat a cold.]

From a symptomatic approach, as I mentioned, find a cocktail of over-the-counter medications that treat whatever symptoms are bothering you the most. If that’s a cough, use a cough suppressant. If your stuffy, runny nose is bothering you, use a decongestant, etc.

Robert McLean, rheumatologist and president of the American College of Physicians: When I feel a viral illness coming on — and this would be typically a respiratory tract virus — I do several specific things to make sure my body is strong enough to fight it off efficiently: 

  1. Ensure that I’m as well-hydrated as possible by drinking lots of fluids in the form of water — at least six to eight large, 16-ounce glasses per day. 
  2. Ensure that I’m getting enough sleep and force myself to go to bed at least one or two hours earlier than normal. 
  3. Treat myself with simple over-the-counter medications for symptom relief of achiness — a couple of ibuprofen or naproxen two or three times per day — or decongestants for nasal or sinus congestion. 

To decrease the risk of getting others sick, I more frequently wash my hands, have no intimate contact and avoid the sharing of drinking glasses or eating utensils.

Anthony Rossi, dermatologist: I believe in prevention, so that’s first and foremost. I get the flu vaccine every year. Regular sleep cycles and exercise also help to maintain a healthy immune system — there’s even some data to show that athletes mount a more specific immune response after vaccination.

If I do get a viral syndrome, like the common cold, I turn to vitamin C and zinc. There have been many studies on this, and while they may not be perfect, there’s evidence that an increase in vitamin C intake can shorten the duration. This most recent study published shows, “Regarding vitamin C, regular supplementation (1 to 2 g/day) has shown that vitamin C reduces the duration (in adults by 8 percent, in children by 14 percent) and the severity of [common cold]. Considering zinc, the supplementation may shorten the duration of colds by approximately 33 percent.”

Jamin Brahmbhatt, urologist: I rarely take days off — I think last year was the first time I took a few days off after I got the flu. I’ve even come in barely able to walk after running a half marathon. Taking an unscheduled day off for me is difficult: I usually have six or seven surgeries and more than 20 appointments scheduled in the office on any given day, so me taking a day off can inconvenience a lot of others.  

I can manage the common cold with medications. If I have a cough, I wear a facemask.  I wash my hands more than usual, but I already wash more than the average Joe. I also go for fist bumps, rather than handshakes. If I have the flu, like I did last year, I stay home. When it comes to the flu, it’s best to stay away from others to avoid spreading the virus. My job is to help patients get better, not get them sicker.

Jeaneatte Raymond, psychologist: I give myself permission to “be sick,” and that means easing up on the daily routine. For example, skip the morning exercise routine, slow down and remove things from the “to-do” list that can wait. That in itself is very relieving, because it removes a layer of stress that would otherwise make you more sick, because stress compromises the immune system.

I also try to listen to my body more keenly and let it guide me — if a headache and sore throat make me feel delicate and frail, I use a blanket for comfort and often a heating pad with a massage function. When I’m unsteady on my feet as I get out of bed, I know I have to call clients and cancel appointments for the day. As soon as that’s done, it’s like a huge weight lifted off of me, and I can take care of my body without guilt.

Alex Klotz, doctor of physics: Disclaimer: I’m not the “real” kind of doctor, but when I get a cold, I know it’s already too late to do anything to get rid of it, so I basically have to strap in for one or two weeks of feeling like crap. I can try to mitigate how crappy I feel by staying hydrated, trying to get a good night’s sleep, taking throat lozenges to numb the pain and so on, but mainly it’s just having the mindset that I have to deal with the symptoms until my body fully recovers. 

Generally, as I’ve gotten older from teens to 20s to 30s, the common cold has gradually become more debilitating. When I was younger and really into lifting weights, I’d try to lift the sickness away as the first sign of an oncoming cold, but that was probably dumb. Interestingly, my father, who’s the “real” kind of doctor, gets sick maybe once every 10 years, if that.

Matthew Zaremsky, doctor of mathematics: When I’m sick, I just ingest as much water and vitamin C as I can and hope that helps. But honestly, these days, with two little kids, I’m just kind of sick all the time and don’t have the time or energy to care. Sorry, that answer had nothing to do with being a math professor, but I can’t really think of a math-related solution to being sick… Actually, strike that. In mathematical research, if you can manage to reduce a problem to a different problem that already has a solution, then you consider your work to be done. So if you get sick, just recall the last time you were sick, you eventually got better, and so mathematically speaking, you’re fine!