As we enter the cold and flu season, it seems to me that there are some residual benefits from continued COVID-19 safety measures — such as mask wearing, hand hygiene and physical distancing — that are not being fully acknowledged for their ability to work against the cold and flu as well. As recently noted by Healthline, experts say the safety protocols used to reduce risk during the COVID-19 pandemic can help further protect people from colds and flu this winter.
They explain that colds, the flu and COVID-19 are all respiratory viruses. The common cold and influenza are both believed to be transmitted through respiratory droplets. While admitting that there is still much to learn about COVID-19, it is believed to be spread in the same manner.
“With COVID-19, probably at least two-thirds of transmission is from the respiratory route via droplets,” Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of California Davis, tells Healthline. Blumberg goes on to say that the Southern Hemisphere is just emerging from the flu season, and patterns seen there are indicative of the widespread benefits of COVID-19 measures such as wearing masks.
“In Taiwan, there was a 75 percent decrease in influenza ... related to the masking and social distancing guidelines,” he tells Healthline.
As William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, explains to Healthline, the more people who wear masks, the greater the public health benefit. “If we did this consistently,” he says, “[it] would spare a lot of us from annoying illnesses, the relatively small minority would be spared very serious disease and of course the burden on the healthcare system would be substantially less and we’d save literally millions of dollars.”
This endorsement of mask wearing is also supported by a new study that found “rigorous evidence” that universal masking in a Massachusetts health care system led to a decrease in the COVID-19 epidemic curve among health care workers. This happened even as the infection rate continued to steeply rise in the surrounding community. The study, published in Occupational Medicine, clearly demonstrates that, along with handwashing and physical distancing, the appropriate use of masks is an essential pillar of infection prevention against COVID-19.
While it is wise for folks to continue to take the proper measures to protect themselves during the pandemic, there is a big difference between being sensible and cautious and being pathologically afraid.
“For 20 years, I lived my life as the world is living it now — awash in Purell and anxiety,” A.J. Jacobs, New York Times bestselling author and senior editor of Esquire admits in a recent Esquire piece. “At the time, it wasn’t rational. It was a drain on my mental health and bank account. But I couldn’t help it: I was a committed germaphobe,” he confesses.
“Mysophobia” is the clinical term for an unhealthy fear of germs and contamination. According to the website Very Well Mind, the phobia tends to be quite common and affects people of all walks of life. Jacobs goes on to say his obsession took many forms, from avoiding shaking hands to slathering surfaces with hand sanitizer to washing his hands repeatedly “surgeon-style until they were raw.” Finally, things started to change after what he calls “a lot of work and cognitive behavioral therapy.” He thought his germaphobia was behind him. Then the pandemic hit, and America started to shut down. “We all became Howard Hughes, but with better reason,” he writes.
Not all that long ago, germaphobes were criticized or mocked for their behavior — especially celebrities. Visons of Michael Jackson wearing his surgical mask come to mind. There was gossip that Frank Sinatra was a chronic hand-washer. It was also reported he took multiple showers daily, sometimes as many as 10 showers in a single day, reports Med Health Daily.
Such scorn does not play well today. Dana Dorfman, a psychotherapist based in New York City, tells U.S. News that some of her patients believe the coronavirus crisis “confirms” their longstanding fears of pathogens. “It’s intensified their convictions about contamination danger,” she says. Dorfman goes on to say that the pandemic is boosting their preoccupations and compulsive behaviors. Persistently consuming news about the coronavirus outbreak heightens and perpetuates their anxiety.
“To fight the coronavirus, just about everyone around the world has been urged to wash our hands more thoroughly and more often, to disinfect surfaces, and to avoid touching their faces,” reports WedMD. “For someone with OCD, these well-needed safeguards can be triggers.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, OCD is a “common, chronic and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts [obsessions] and/or behaviors [compulsions] that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over.”
As reported in U.S. News, for the millions of people in the U.S who live with OCD, the coronavirus outbreak is amplifying their preexisting fears of germs. An estimated 1 in 40 adults and 1 in 100 children in the U.S. have OCD, according to BeyondOCD.org
Acknowledging anxiety and learning to live with it are useful skills for anyone to acquire, especially during a pandemic — not so easy for someone with OCD or mysophobia, where much-needed safeguards can induce compulsive behavior and the onset of a disorder that can take great effort to manage, even in the best of times.
Today, Jacobs says he has settled into “a calmer, more rational, more evidence-based avoidance of germs. I do all the best practices, but without that sense of disgust I used to have. Disgust is a draining emotion. I’m not a fan. I see it as a vestige of paleolithic times. ... Stressing about germs is probably counterproductive. Constant worry makes our immune systems more vulnerable.”
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