You can’t run — you can’t hide — it’s the attack of the killer germs! As a travel nurse, you’ve accepted it’s all in a day’s work. Health care professionals are exposed to germs, bacteria, and viruses at an alarming rate. That doesn’t mean you have to spend your days run down with illness. With self-care and prevention, you can keep your immune system primed to fight. Here’s how.

Prevention

Think of your immune system as a workhorse. It’s there to help you, and if you’re generally healthy, it can handle quite a bit of stress. Research is inconclusive, but anecdotally, many say that nurses build more immunities by spending so much time in a germy setting. They’re sick less often because their workhorse immune systems have been through vigorous training.

Still, even the most seasoned workhorse can’t march uphill for days on end without water. Sometimes, in a busy hospital setting, you’re facing similar circumstances. To make sure you don’t overload your immune system, take preventative measures. If you can avoid as many illnesses as possible, you’ll be in better shape to fight when a bad one hits. Here’s how to avoid germs:

Wash your hands

You learned it in nursing school — wash those hands! It might seem basic, but many healthcare professionals aren’t living up to standards. In fact, a 2016 study found 78% of healthcare professionals don’t wash their hands as often or as thoroughly as they should.

  • Use soap on all parts of your hands, including the backs. Wash for 20 seconds and dry your hands thoroughly. Once finished, use a paper towel to turn off the faucet. (Faucet handles are one of the germiest things you’ll encounter in your daily routine.)
  • Keep hand sanitizer on hand, too. Hand sanitizer isn’t a cure-all: in fact, alcohol-based hand sanitizers aren’t effective against certain categories of pathogens, including noroviruses and C. difficile. Still, they can be helpful when no soap is available. See this CDC chart for recommendations about when to use sanitizer vs. when to wash.

Wash your scrubs

You love your scrubs! They’re comfortable, give you freedom to move, and don’t require much thought in the morning. The bad news? A recent study found they’re excellent carriers for bacteria, even if they’re made with antibacterial materials.

Sanitize your scrubs by washing them separately using a disinfectant. Buy heavy-weight scrubs that can withstand frequent washing.

Don’t touch anything unless you absolutely have to

The simplest way to keep germs away is to avoid picking them up. A few rules to keep in mind:

  • Avoid shaking hands and any unnecessary bodily contact with patients or visitors. While it’s nice to have a good bedside manner, when it comes to germs, it’s wise to keep a little distance.
  • Don’t touch your face. Your eyes, nose, and mouth are the body’s greatest gateways for germs.
  • Wipe down surfaces and anything that comes in contact with your patients, including your stethoscope.
  • Carry your own pen. Everyone in the hospital is filling out paperwork. That communal pen is practically crawling with bugs.

(Note: beyond keeping yourself healthy, proper prevention will keep your patients safer, too! One in twenty-five hospital patients has a healthcare-associated infection on any given day, and many of those are becoming antibiotic-resistant. Remember, when it comes to fighting illnesses and infections, we’re all in this together.)

Self-Care

Now we’ve covered how to protect your immune system through prevention on the job. What about taking care of yourself at home? A solid routine of self-care is essential to staying healthy. Here are a few tips on how to strengthen your immune system by nurturing yourself.

Sleep

The schedule of a travel nurse makes regular and adequate sleep a major challenge. Still, it’s probably the most important thing you can do to maintain a healthy immune system. During sleep, the immune system releases cytokines, a protein you need to find infections, inflammation, and stress. Deprivation can decrease cytokine protection, making you more vulnerable to illness.

Even more? Lack of sleep on a regular basis is linked to chronic medical conditions, and night shift work poses even greater risks, including heart disease and certain cancers. Do your best to get a solid 7 hours of sleep each night. Some other sleep goals to keep in mind:

  • Stick to a schedule and minimize electronics in your bedroom.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and heavy meals in the evening.
  • Establish and follow a pre-sleep routine that includes at least 30 minutes of wind-down time.

Get your shots

Vaccination is an essential part of protecting you from contracting a disease at work. It’s also a way to protect your family, co-workers, and patients by reducing the chances of passing on an illness. The American Nurses Association recommends nurses stay on top of several different vaccines, including:

  • Seasonal Influenza
  • Tetanus, Diptheria, and Pertussis (Tdap)
  • Measles, Mumps, and Rubella
  • Hepatitis B, and
  • Varicella

Eat Well

A healthy immune system depends on getting the right nutrients. A diet rich in variety with plenty of fruits and vegetables will most likely cover your nutritional needs. If you want to focus on eating more immune-boosting foods, here are a few suggestions:

  • Citric fruits. Half a grapefruit provides more than 60% of your daily vitamin C content!
  • Blueberries and grapes. Pterostilbene and resveratrol stimulate the expression of the CAMP gene,  which plays a key role in successful immune system function.
  • Green tea. Polyphenols, potent plant antioxidants, are believed to give green tea its immune-boosting effects. Cozy up with a mug when you’ve got a quiet moment at your desk (and enjoy the perk of a bit of caffeine, too!).
  • Milk and fatty fish. These foods provide vitamin D. Your body can also create its own stores of Vitamin D through sun exposure — but don’t forget to wear sunscreen!.
  • Garlic. Garlic shows promise as a way to reduce the symptoms of colds and flu and much more. It’s been used as a folk remedy for centuries, and as a bonus, it can give your spaghetti sauce a great kick.

When it comes to supplements, large doses of vitamins aren’t necessarily better, but you might consider taking a multivitamin, iron supplement, or fish oil if there are groups of foods you don’t eat regularly.

Exercise

Research shows even 20 minutes of moderate exercise can strengthen your immune system. If you don’t work out regularly, challenge yourself to add a small amount of physical activity into your daily routine. Take the stairs instead of the elevator, or walk laps around the parking lot during your shift break. Every step counts!

Manage Stress

Mindfulness is a term coined by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a doctor and researcher who studied the benefits of meditation and related practices. He defines mindfulness as “moment to moment, non-judgmental awareness.” As a form of self-care, it’s a path towards relaxation, which can help you manage stress and keep you healthier. In addition to improving immune function, mindfulness lowers your cortisol levels and blood pressure.

If you’re interested in learning more, see our post on How to Get Started with Mindfulness for Travel Nurses for tips and recommendations.

With fall approaching, and cold and flu season on the way, keep these immune-boosting tips in mind to keep yourself healthy, happy, and high-performing!