You'll catch it now

9th January 1998 at 00:00
New teachers pick up every bug going in their first term. Never mind; just nurture yourself, says Kevin Berry

Elspeth Smith is sneezing. She is sneezing so violently that people sitting the other side of the staffroom are flinching. The senior teacher looks disgusted; even more disgusted than she normally looks.

Elspeth has a streaming cold. She's had it for most of the term, her first in teaching, and she's had a number of days off. The senior mistress has passed some withering comments on Elspeth's absence record, and many have agreed with her.

We are having a year group meeting in a corner of the staffroom, but Elspeth is clearly not up to it. Steam is rising from her and her cheeks are pale as chalk. If she stays there is every chance that the other year group teachers will soon be catching whatever she has. I tell her to go home and get herself to bed with a hot water bottle and, risking the reference I will need when I leave the school, I add: "Never mind what anyone else might say -you're ill, and one day in bed isn't going to get you right. Come back too soon and you'll catch something else. You need at least a week off to get your strength back. Get some chicken soup down you."

Then I suggest she apply some vapour rub to her chest, and if she can't manage that perhaps her husband might. Oh dear. The frown on the senior mistress's face could strip wallpaper.

New teachers fall ill during their first term. Fact. They haven't previously encountered umpteen viruses at close quarters, so their bodies offer little resistance. A cold, sickness or something unmentionable will happen . . . let it, in fact welcome it. Let your body learn to fight it, and don't go back until you are fully recovered. It is better to have three days off than be a permanent wreck throughout the winter.

Have you ever seen a sick doctor? They follow much the same career pattern: they qualify, start work, and are suddenly bombarded by every germ in the text book. They take sensible precautions, and their bodies learn how to cope.

I have chronic asthma, so a career regularly punctuated by days of absence has been inevitable, but thankfully I haven't had a day off for any other form of illness. I have not had a cold since my student days, and I am rarely sick. I haven't the constitution of an ox, but I have been careful.

Some years ago I read a book about Niki Lauda (a former world champion racing driver) in which he said he could not afford to risk catching a cold; he could not drive unless he was 100 per cent healthy. He mentioned something about never going outside with wet hair and never sitting in a draught, but that was about all in the way of tips. He attributed his skill in avoiding coughs and sneezes to the power of determined thinking. He had made up his mind that he simply wasn't going to have a cold or succumb to a minor illness.

Keep reasonably warm, but don't overcook yourself; open a window, but don't work in a draught. Eat three reasonable meals a day, don't skip any, and try for a regular sleep pattern. Germs strike with devastating effect when you are tired. A quick breaktime nibble of something containing carbohydrate, a favourite biscuit perhaps, will keep your energy levels up. If you have a sporty hobby keep well away from other people for about half an hour after playing because that's when your immune system is most vulnerable.

Some form of hat is important on wet days, as my Aunt Nellie always used to say, and people who habitually wear scarves just don't seem to sniffle.

Chicken soup can help when you start sneezing. No, not my granny's favourite remedy but sound, clinically proven advice. Chicken soup can shorten the length of the common cold, but chicken sandwiches and chicken vindaloo somehow do not have the same effect, and the scientists don't know why.

Scientists also advocate a zinc supplement to reduce the length of a cold. Zinc is obtainable in lozenge form from health shops and chemists but should be taken in moderation.

If you do come down with something, for goodness sake don't try sweating it out in the gym or going for a run. Hard exercise reduces the immune system's ability to fight viruses, and you can damage your heart.

There are many experienced teachers who seem to go for years and years without catching a cold or having a tummy bug, but they will all admit to having had wretched health in their first term. Their bodies learned how to cope, they took reasonable precautions . . . and they stocked up on chicken soup.

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