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How to Prepare Yourself and Your Household Before Sickness Strikes

You don’t want to discover you’re out of tissues, decongestants or pain medication when a respiratory infection or stomach bug strikes your family. And with colds, the flu, RSV, COVID and the stomach flu all circulating, there’s a good chance someone in your household will come down with something at some point. 

Jason Leubner, MD, a Banner Health family medicine specialist in Phoenix, Arizona, helped us learn how to prepare, so you’re stocked up when sickness strikes, and you can focus on getting yourself or your family better.

Get these vaccines ahead of time

When you and your family members are vaccinated, you’re less likely to get sick. And, if you do, odds are your infection will be milder. The influenza vaccine, COVID vaccine, pneumonia vaccine and Tdap vaccine (which includes a whooping cough component) can reduce the risk of respiratory diseases and some of their more serious complications.

“I generally recommend all the vaccines that the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices endorses, as they all help to prevent infections, illness and time away from work,” Dr. Leubner said. Your doctor can recommend the vaccines for you based on your age, profession, living environment and medical conditions. “Most people can get most vaccines,” he said.

Stock your medicine cabinet with these items

You don’t need a long list of medications and supplies. Here’s what works best:

  • Acetaminophen and ibuprofen. Most infections that spread are viral, and these medications can help with the pain and fevers that you often see with viral infections.
  • Antihistamines and decongestants. These medications can help with nasal congestion and drainage. “Keep in mind that antihistamines and decongestants can have side effects like drowsiness, dry mouth, insomnia and dizziness,” Dr. Leubner said. “And before you start using them regularly, review them with your doctor since they can interfere with medications for chronic conditions.”
  • Medications that can treat stomach issues. Products like Pepto Bismol and Imodium can relieve nausea and diarrhea.
  • A thermometer. You’ll want an accurate temperature reading if you or a family member has a fever.
  • A pulse oximeter. These inexpensive devices measure your blood oxygen level. You can contact your health care provider if your readings are low or dropping.
  • COVID tests. It can be tough to tell the difference among respiratory illnesses, so home tests can show you whether it’s COVID causing your symptoms. 
  • A humidifier. It can be easier to breathe and rest when you’re sick if you add moisture to the air.

What you can skip. Dr. Leubner said that studies have found minimal or uncertain benefits from treatments like guaifenesin, honey, saline nasal spray, zinc and other herbal supplements such as pelargonium sidoides and elderberry extract. Vitamin C has questionable real-world benefits when you take it ahead of time. Studies haven’t found any benefit from taking it once you start having symptoms. 

For stomach symptoms related to viral infections, you might prefer a bland diet such as bananas, rice, applesauce and toast, but the evidence that it helps you get better is weak. The same goes for probiotics—they aren’t likely to make a difference.

Here’s what to know about your expired medications

What if you stocked up in the past and didn’t need all your supplies? Unfortunately, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not recommend using medications or supplements after their expiration date. “There is no guarantee that the medication will be safe or effective,” Dr. Leubner said. But, if you take expired medication, the problem you’re most likely to face is that it isn’t as effective as it would be before its expiration date. 

Stock your pantry with these staples

Dealing with sickness will be easier if you have these items on hand:

  • Water, sports drinks and broths. Your top priority for most viral illnesses is staying hydrated. “This is especially important for illnesses with diarrhea,” Dr. Leubner said. It’s not a good idea to hydrate with soda or juice, since these beverages have a lot of sugar.
  • Hand soap and hand sanitizer. Good hygiene can help reduce the spread of germs among family members. 
  • Tissues. You’ll want to have plenty of tissues on hand for runny noses and sneezes, especially if multiple family members get sick at the same time. 
  • Surface cleaner/disinfectant. Keeping kitchen and bathroom countertops and surfaces and high-touch items like doorknobs and light switches clean and sanitized can help keep infections from spreading.
  • Laundry detergent. You’ll want to keep cozy blankets, sweatshirts and socks clean when people in your home are sick. Plus, if a stomach bug sweeps through your house, you may find yourself washing sheets a lot more often than usual.
  • Family favorites. If you know your daughter wants tomato soup when she’s not feeling well, or your son craves peanut butter, make sure you have these long-shelf-life foods in your cupboards.
  • Masks. Wearing masks can help prevent the spread of respiratory illnesses within your family and to the general public.

Talk to your family, so everyone is prepared

Make sure everyone knows who has symptoms and what those symptoms are. That way, you can take steps to keep germs from spreading. “Good hand hygiene, covering coughs and sneezes and cleaning contaminated surfaces can all help to reduce the spread of infections in the house,” Dr. Leubner said. “Limiting more direct contact can also be helpful, but that’s not always possible, especially with children.” 

Make sure close, trusted family members know how to find information about each other’s medical history and medications in case an illness turns serious. If you live alone, you can post this information in your home or carry it on your phone or a medical ID card in your wallet.

The bottom line

You can’t completely eliminate the chances that someone in your household gets sick. But you can reduce the odds of illness and take steps now, so you’re ready if sickness strikes. To learn more about preparing yourself and your family for common illnesses, reach out to a Banner Health provider.

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