Out in the Cold with RA

Patient Expert

Last month, I wrote about taking a sick day when your RA flares. Fortunately, I haven't had to take too many of those lately, but I have managed to use up a few of my sick days recently due to something all of us experience, especially this time of year: the common cold.

It's annoying, isn't it? Apparently, it's not enough that we have to deal with being sick day-in and day-out with a chronic illness; we also have to deal with the same ordinary onslaughts to our immune systems that everyone else faces. I personally think that having a chronic disease should exempt one from everyday ailments like the cold, the flu and strep throat. A diagnosis of RA or another chronic disease ought to come hand-in-hand with a Get Out of Colds Free card. Unfortunately, the opposite is most often true. For those of us who use DMARD's and/or biologics to treat our rheumatoid arthritis, the common cold can become even more common since these medications can increase our risk of infection and lower our ability to fight off those pesky, vile viruses.

It's totally unfair; nonetheless, it's reality. Rather than sit back and pout about it (or perhaps in addition to?), I like to do all I can to prevent my immune system from having to deal with anything else. I was a flu-shot fan before my immune system went haywire, but I am now a flu-shot fanatic. Come September, my arm is out on the table, fist-clenched and ready, before they can even say 'roll up your sleeve.' (To read more about how to protect yourself from the flu, check out Lisa Emrich's great share post here.)

And I haven't stopped there: since RA entered my life, I've been vaccinated for pneumonia, diphtheria, whooping cough (which is making a comeback in some regions of the U.S.), and more serious diseases like hepatitis A, tetanus, and typhus. Granted, the latter three were for my travels abroad, but you could say that I've become a bit of a vaccine junkie. If there's one out there and I can have it, I want it. Sadly, due to my meds, live vaccines for diseases like Shingles and Yellow Fever are off limits. I know some people are uncomfortable with vaccines, but since I've never had a problem with them, and because all have been recommended by and discussed with my rheumatologist, I'm happy to offer up my arm in the name of prevention. As Julia Roberts said in Pretty Woman: I'm a safety gal.

In addition to being a living pincushion, I'm a pretty relentless hand-washer. Not to the point of needing an intervention, but I always wash my hands before I eat, after I eat, when I get to work, come home from work, or handle anything really public. I also avoid touching my face as much as possible. I'd rather be a bit of a germa-phobe than end up with snot in my sinuses. I am on a regimen of vitamins, all approved by my medical supersquad, which include Vitamin-C and Zinc, which can help ward off the enemy cold virus. And, while their efficacy may be debatable, I am also a user of homeopathic products that aim to help prevent and/or shorten colds (you should speak with your rheumatologist before using any supplements and/or additional remedies).

Despite all my attempts at resiliency, the common cold somehow manages to sneak in and evade all my defenses. Last month, I got a doozy of a cold. It had been making its way through my office, and sure enough, one afternoon, regardless of my relentless hand-washing efforts, I felt the ominous beginnings of a sore throat and congestion. By the next morning, my head felt like it had detached itself from the rest of my body, and breathing through my nose was more a distant memory than something I was actually able to do. Optimistic as ever, I dragged myself into work anyway, thinking I could fake my way into good health. Not surprisingly, it didn't work, so I went home to do what I should have done to begin with: get plenty of rest, and drink lots of liquids.

I felt more human by the next day, but the cold took a full two weeks to run its course. After wreaking havoc in my nose and sinuses, it headed down into my lungs causing an abrasive cough that kept me up at night, depriving me of some much needed sleep. Because my shots for RA can interfere with my bodies ability to fight off a cold, I had to put them on hiatus, which always makes me feel uneasy as I don't want to rouse my RA and give it a reason to join the party. But when the cough refused to get better and two weeks had passed, I called my primary care doctor to make sure this cold wasn't going to turn into anything more serious like bronchitis- a concern if you are taking meds that compromise your immune response. Thankfully, my cold was just a stubborn, lingering kind of cold; it took a few more days before it finally worked its way out of my system for good, and I could get back on track with my RA meds.

As annoying and dreary as this cold was, and as much as I felt like I should be excused from catching any illness as ordinary and popular as the cold, I had to admit there was something nice about being under the weather from something everyone else gets, too. Even my colleagues had a tough time battling this cold, so the fact that I did as well made me feel shockingly normal.

Hopefully, I've paid my cold dues for the current season. If I'm lucky, I won't have to use any more sick days for a while. Prevention is still the key, so remembering some basic measures like washing hands, getting enough rest and keeping in touch with our rheumatologists and doctors can help us through a season that is cold enough without catching a cold, too.

Sara is the author of the blog, The Single Gal's Guide to Rheumatoid Arthritis.