Tips for Managing Infection Risk With Rheumatoid Arthritis

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We live in a time when there are more treatments for rheumatoid arthritis (RA) than ever before. Biologics offer more hope of symptoms going into remission for many more people. These treatments, however, come with a downside. Since they suppress the immune system, they also increase your risk of infection. What can you do to manage this risk? Here are tips that can help protect you, leaving you free to make the most of your life.


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Get these three vaccines

Three vaccines are especially important when your immune system is suppressed: The flu shot, a pneumonia shot, and a tetanus shot. Getting these vaccines can greatly reduce your risk of illness and infection. Research indicates that biologics may affect the effectiveness of vaccinations, so ask your doctor whether you should be off your immunosuppressant medication for a few weeks before being vaccinated.


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Use hand sanitizer

Washing your hands frequently, using the correct technique, is an important way to protect yourself against infection. However, most people don’t take the time.Thanks to increased awareness of preventing the spread of flu and colds, it’s no longer weird to carry hand sanitizer. Use it after shaking hands or touching dirty surfaces. We touch our faces every three to four minutes without being aware of it. Cleaning your hands frequently can help reduce the risk of contagion.


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Pay attention

People who have RA have an increased risk of infections and this increases if you are on immunosuppressants. If you get a cold or flu, pay attention to your symptoms. If you feel wheezy or get a bad cough, see a doctor. A wound or scratch that gets red, warm, or swollen needs medical attention. If a cat or dog bites you and breaks the skin, go to the ER immediately and ask for IV antibiotics. This applies to everyone, even healthy people. Animal bites can become very serious very quickly.


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Educate your loved ones

Talk to your family and friends about the consequences of being immunosuppressed. Tell them you’re more likely to pick up viruses and that if you do, you will have a much harder time fighting it than they do. There’s no such thing as "just a cold" when you’re on an immunosuppressant. Develop a "don’t visit me if you’re sick" rule. It may take a while for people to understand but keep trying. Your health may depend on it.


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Take care in the kitchen

To prevent contamination from raw foods that could lead to food poisoning, use different cutting boards for meat, fish, and vegetables. When dealing with raw meat or fish, clean the counter, cutting boards, and your hands thoroughly with soap and water before proceeding to the next step in the recipe. Once you have finished your tasks, clean all tools and counters. You may want to take a food handling course to get more tips.


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Don’t touch public surfaces with bare hands

A study revealed that some of the dirtiest public surfaces include gas pump handles, ATMs, and other surfaces that are rarely, if ever, washed. Keep a pair of gloves in your car to use when you pump gas, and press elevator and ATM buttons with a key or a finger covered in a tissue. Use your own pen for signing credit card receipts and forms. Your workplace may also not be clean. Carry hand sanitizer and remember to use it.


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Use gloves

Invest in a box of vinyl medical examination gloves (some people are allergic to latex) available in most drug and grocery stores. Use them when repotting houseplants, cleaning the litter box, picking up after your dog, dealing with raw fish and meat in the kitchen, and other tasks that involve getting your hands into germy substances. If you’re a gardener, wear gardening gloves when you have your hands in soil and don’t forget your tetanus shot.


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Buy masks

Keeping a box of surgical masks in your house is also a good idea. Hand them to people who don’t respect the "don’t visit me if you’re sick" rule. Carry a few with you for situations where the risk of contagion is higher than normal, such as a doctor’s office, hospital, on an airplane, or during flu season. You can also get more fashionable masks that may be more effective. A big scarf can also work in a pinch. If people look at you funny, consider it an opportunity to educate about RA.


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Know what to do if you get sick

Talk to your rheumatologist about what to do about your medication should you feel like you’re getting sick. Some doctors say you can continue taking your immunosuppressant as long as you don’t have a fever or infection, while others want you to skip the meds entirely when you’re sick. Also, stay away from immune-system boosters, such as echinacea or goldenseal, which can cause autoimmune diseases to flare.


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Relax

When you first hear the word "immunosuppressant," it can make you worry that you will catch simply every infection out there. For most people, the increased risk of infection can be managed by a common-sense approach without becoming hypervigilant. Remember that the point of taking these drugs is to get better, so you can get back to your life.