Health & Wellness

7 Ways Nurses (Almost) Never Get Sick

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Nurses get more up close and personal with sick patients than anyone else.

And yet it's vital for them to stay healthy: They've got hard work to do, and can't be ill around patients with compromised immune systems. We've heard countless times that it's essential to take care of ourselves before taking care of others—you know, the whole "secure your oxygen mask before assisting others" drill—but it's hard to put into practice. Nurses actually do it.

Aside from washing their hands and getting their flu shots annually, nurses have other immunity-boosting tricks that have become second nature. Read on to learn their 7 best tips for staying healthy. 

They don't touch their faces.
"Usually, the transmission of illnesses is from hands, nose, eyes, and mouth," says Nicoleta Constantin, PhD, BSN, a registered nurse at UNC Hospitals, Chapel Hill. She's developed the habit of never touching her face, and instead grabs a tissue or uses her forearm when she needs to scratch her nose or rub her eyes. Constantin also adheres to the "droplet precautions" procedure at work, which is CDC protocol to help prevent the transmission of respiratory viruses (like wearing a mask and performing proper hand hygiene). Droplets from sneezes can carry organisms within a 3-feet radius, so while Constantin can't avoid staying close to her patients, she bears this fact in mind and keeps a healthy distance from sick people on her days off. (And for good reason: A 2011 survey by the American Biology Society and the American Cleaning Institute found that just 39% of people always wash their hands after coughing or sneezing.)

They're vigilant about hygiene—even when they're not at work.
Old habits die hard, and when it comes to staying germ-free, that's a very good thing. "You can get a lot of nasty bugs at the gym," says Jocelyn Freeman, ONS, a registered nurse in Arizona. She always washes her hands with soap and water after working out and when she arrives home—sanitizer doesn't cut it. According to the CDC, alcohol-based hand sanitizers can reduce the number of microbes on our hands, but they don't kill all of the germs. Freeman also always covers open wounds and resists the urge to touch her mouth while working up a sweat at the gym. And when Mary Davitt, a registered nurse at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, is out grocery shopping, she makes sure to clean the cart handle with antibacterial wipes. It's a smart move: One study of shopping carts found that 72% of the carts they tested were contaminated with fecal bacteria, and 51% were contaminated with E. coli.

They pack their lunches.
Long hours and busy shifts can lead to poor choices for lunch if you don't plan ahead. "I eat fruits and veggies pretty religiously on my shift, and wash them thoroughly before packing them up," says Davitt. Need some healthy ideas? Foods that will boost immunity include yogurt, chicken soup, sweet potatoes, and these six others. Additionally, Davitt says that she tries not to share food with anyone in the break room and avoids eating in the cafeteria. You never know who was breathing on that sandwich, right?

They stay on their feet despite working long hours.
Fresh air feels especially good after a long day inside the hospital, and that's probably because it is so good for you. On her way home, Claire Schuster, a registerd nurse at New York–Presbyterian Hospital, makes a point to get off the bus one stop early and walk the rest of the way. It's a good habit to get into, even if you're exhausted after a long day at work. According to research out of Appalachian State University, a daily 30- to 45-minute brisk walk increases the number of immune cells that circulate in the body and can reduce sick days by 40%.

They take their vacation days.
Time off is healing, literally. Schuster makes a point to use all of her vacation days to avoid added stress and burnout. And research backs that notion up: According to a Finnish study, severe occupational burnout has been linked with an increased risk of illness. But Schuster may be in the minority here: Most Americans who are given paid time off don't always take it, according to a 2014 survey, which showed that just 25% of people take all of their vacation days and that 61% work while on vacation.

They don't bottle up their feelings.
Seeing a therapist and journaling helps Ashley Leak Bryant, PhD, RN, OCN, an assistant professor at the UNC School of Nursing in Chapel Hill, release work-related stress, anxiety, and fear. She works in a cancer unit and faces daily challenges, and says that it's essential to find relaxing activities. And studies show that it works: According to research from the University of Texas at Austin, regular journaling can strengthen our immune cells. Other research contends that journaling can lessen the symptoms of asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. (We know, you can't catch asthma or rheumatoid arthritis, but it just proves the healing powers of getting stress off your mind.) "If we are unable to take care of ourselves, how can we pour our hearts into taking care of our patients and their families?" says Bryant.

They're optimists.
Sounds corny, but there's a lot to be said for making a point to see the sunny side of life—like boosting your immune system. (Here's the pessimist's guide to being optimistic.) In one study, researchers gave nasal drops of the cold and flu virus to 193 people between the ages of 21 and 55. The research revealed that the more positive individuals didn't get nearly as sick as the Negative Nancys, and also recovered faster. Staying chipper has helped Paige Roberts, RN, BSN, MBA, PCCN, a nurse manager in surgery service at UNC Health Care, stay healthy, reduce stress, and prevent burnout. At the end of each day, Roberts and other nurses in her unit pass around a notebook and write down good things that happened during the day. After 4 years, her team had over 7,000 positive things on the list. "The more you reflect on positive things, the more you see them," Roberts says.

This article was written by Maggie Finn Ryan from Prevention and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected].

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