As winter approaches, so does the dreaded cold and flu season. Illnesses that can be an inconvenience for able-bodied people can quickly become serious and debilitating for those living with spinal cord injuries. Respiratory infections are a common complication with spinal cord injuries that need to be avoided at all costs. By following a few tips, common winter illnesses can be prevented or made less severe.
For those living with paralysis, especially those with higher level injuries that affect breathing, it is important to take action to prevent getting sick. Although this may seem like common sense, people often overlook the simple things that can prevent a world of trouble. First and foremost, getting a flu shot is a cheap and effective way to protect oneself. The flu can be deadly for anybody, let alone someone with weak respiratory function. Caregivers and family members of people with spinal cord injuries should also get flu shots in order to protect themselves and their loved ones from the virus.
Another simple thing that everybody can do to stay healthy is to eat well and get enough rest. Eating a healthy diet, staying hydrated, and taking supplements can boost immune function and help with general well-being. Getting enough sleep is important to prevent the body and its systems from getting worn down and prone to infection.
It’s also important to stay active as much as possible. Exercise is well-known to be beneficial for the immune system. By staying strong in general, individuals will be in a better position to prevent illness, and if they do get sick, they will be more able to fight off infection.
Unfortunately, even when taking all the proper precautions, people will inevitably get sick. When this happens, it is very important to see a doctor immediately to prevent the infection from getting worse. I can speak from my personal experience about how quickly a seemingly minor infection can turn into pneumonia. Once, I came down with what I thought was just a cold and I didn’t bother to see my doctor. Over the course of a few days, what started as a cold found its way into my lungs and developed into full-blown pneumonia. Having dealt with pneumonia while in the hospital immediately following my injury, I knew how serious it was and how dangerous it can be for someone with a spinal cord injury. Fortunately, we caught it early enough and a course of antibiotics and steroids treated it before I became seriously ill. Since then, I have been much more proactive about seeing a doctor when it seems like something more than just a cold is brewing in my body.
As in my case, treatment may be as simple as a course of antibiotics. When prescribed antibiotics, it is necessary to complete the entire course to ensure that the bacteria are completely killed. Failure to finish the course of antibiotics can result in antibiotic resistance and infections that are difficult to treat.
In some cases, it may be necessary to have chest x-rays to rule out pneumonia. Pneumonia is a serious complication that can result in hospitalization. If caused by a bacterial infection, pneumonia can be treated with antibiotics. However, it may also be necessary to use steroids and breathing treatments.
For individuals with weakened respiratory systems, there are techniques to assist with clearing the lungs. An assisted cough is done by having a caregiver push on the abdomen of the individual with paralysis while they attempt to cough. This will help create force to expel mucus from the lungs.
A helpful guide for assisted coughs is located here: https://www.myshepherdconnection.org/respiratory/assist-cough
These are but a few of many ways to help prevent and treat illnesses during cold and flu season. It is very important to take care of oneself during this season to avoid potentially serious complications. By following common sense advice and the advice of medical professionals, it is possible to stay healthy and happy during the cold winter months.
Written by Mike Franz
Mike is a C6 quad from Michigan who has been injured 16+ years.