Temporospatial trends in germophobia

One of the cultural differences I noticed soon after I moved from Britain to Canada is how people treat you if you say you have a cold or other minor ailment. In the UK, my experience is that friends, family, and even colleagues will express sympathy and concern, and offer to make you a cup of tea. In Canada, my experience is that they’ll literally back away from you at your first sneeze with a look of horror on their faces, as if facing Patient Zero in some horrific new giraffe ebolafluenza plague outbreak.

I always put this difference down to wussy pampered North Americans versus well ‘ard Europeans (plus the civilising influence of tea), but I’m starting to wonder if age isn’t also a factor; I’m definitely getting less cavalier about germs as I get older.

The Campylobacter food poisoning I got in 2007 that made me sick for ten days and sent me to hospital for emergency IV rehydration might have had something to do with it; I’m much more conscious of food safety than I ever was before. Or it might have been the two bouts of norovirus, one of which kicked in at 11:30 pm one Christmas Eve, and which reconfirmed my hatred of throwing up that borders on the phobic (vaccine NOW please). I got the first bout, and then something else a couple of years later that wasn’t noro but had somewhat similar effects, when a friend or relative who’d been sick a few days before (but hadn’t disclosed this fact to me) offered me a sip or a bite of what they were having. The result is that I’m now much more cautious about sharing food (and about using paper towels to turn off taps and open bathroom doors), and once literally shouted at another friend who’d invited everyone over to his house a couple of days before Christmas without telling anyone until we got there that he’d been throwing up all day (I didn’t get sick that time, which is the only reason I don’t have any assault charges on my record).

I’d maintained my nonchalance around colds and flu, though. I always get my flu shot at the free clinics we have at work, and the one time I didn’t because it wasn’t available yet and then I got swine flu a) wasn’t even the worst flu I’ve ever had and b) apparently has left me with super-immunity. Oink Oink Yay! And although I’ve always been prone to bad coughs after a cold (thank you, childhood whooping cough), I’ve been better since leaving the freezing cold student accommodation I “enjoyed” in Newcastle and Glasgow well behind me, and the colds themselves never bothered me much at all…

…until this time.

Mr E Man got it first, from a colleague who’d come in sick and literally coughed right in his face. When Mr E Man protested, the guy said “hey, I got bills to pay” (they don’t get sick days per se – they do get a small amount on every pay cheque that nominally counts as their annual paid sick time, but doesn’t actually feel like it because if they miss work when they’re ill they don’t get any pay for those days and end up with a much smaller cheque that week). Mr E Man ended up missing six days of work – two because he was sick, then the other four because not being in on the day when it suddenly got very quiet meant that he was the guy who got the phone call telling him not to come back until next week because there wasn’t enough work for everyone. The guy who’d got him sick worked right through that period.

I knew I was going to get the cold, because it’s inevitable when you live with someone. I wasn’t worried though, because as I said, colds don’t usually bother me that much. I didn’t even forbid him to kiss me or to drink from my glass. And when I did get the cold, it was mild and lasted two days.

But then the coughing started, and still hasn’t stopped eleven days later. I was hacking away all through each day, and the nights were worse – I’d sleep for an hour, cough almost non-stop for three, repeat until exhausted. The second I lay down my chest felt weird – not painful as such, just weird – and I just couldn’t get control over that cough. I missed two days of work – extremely rare for me – went back for two, exhausted myself, and missed another day. At this point I went to the doctor – I’ve never been to the doctor for a cold or cough or even the flu before – and was given an inhaler, and some codeine to help me sleep. I had high hopes for a good night’s sleep, but nope, I was wide awake again before midnight, coughing non-stop until after 3am. The inhaler did offer some relief, but only for an hour or so at a time, and I wasn’t supposed to take it more than three times a day.

A second trip to the doctor resulted in a diagnosis of asthma, which I’ve never had before. It’ll probably just last a couple of weeks, but might recur or even become chronic in the future. I had no idea this could happen, but as so often happens with my medical escapades, I quickly found out that at least two colleagues from my team of nine have had the same thing happen to them. Who knew?!

I now have two inhalers and had my first decent night’s sleep last night (decent is defined as “only woke up coughing three times, and only for about ten minutes each time”). I might even be able to move back out of the spare room soon, which will be nice – I’ve been there for ten nights now so as to let Mr E Man sleep, and it’s just not as good as being in my own bed. The right diagnosis and prescription works wonders – hooray for modern medicine!

I do think, though, that this latest adventure in germs will affect my attitude towards minor head colds in the future. I hope I won’t ever become North American enough about it to start literally backing away from my friends in horror, but I do understand that kind of reaction a leeeetle bit better than I did as a FOB immigrant.

I still think people should offer me more cups of tea, though. Even when I’m not sick.

About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
This entry was posted in Canada, medicine, personal, UK, virology. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Temporospatial trends in germophobia

  1. genegeek says:

    I will get you a cup of tea – as I back away in horror 🙂 I’m immune-suppressed so extra-wimpy but still try to offer sympathy.

  2. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Ah, well, that’s different and completely understandable!

    I should say that I’ve always been very good about minimising my chances of infecting anyone else – lots of hand washing, coughing and sneezing into the crook of my arm rather than into my hand, etc. Working in clinical / mixed use buildings for my whole career, where you constantly run into immune-suppressed cancer patients, probably has something to do with that – and I avoid the busiest areas as much as possible when I’m sick and for days afterwards.

  3. Nina says:

    Yeah, I was once on medication that, among other horrible things, could bring on asthma and I had the feeling it did. Luckily I could change onto another drug with 100 side effects, of which I had none, although we’ll have to see if I die at an early age of unexplained heart failure.
    However, as someone who time and again falls for guys who turn out to have chronic asthma, I have to say that asthmatics are nice people.
    Hope you get well soon though and can get rid of the not so sexy inhalers.

  4. Hope you feel much better soon.

    Here in the UK the current concern is norovirus (see http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/dec/18/norovirus-could-880000-people), cue much hand washing!

  5. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Thanks Nina! I hope you’re feeling better too, with your Skype-virus.

    My parents are totally freaking out about this – I’m getting multiple emails a day saying things like “did you remember to tell the doctor that you have hay fever? Maybe you should go back and let them know”. I’ve already told them that half my friends growing up had asthma and they’re all fine (I grew up in an area notorious for poor air quality, so there were more inhalers than kids in my school some days)

    Thanks Philip! I’m shuddering just thinking about Christmas-time noroviruses. Ugh. That was my worst Christmas EVAH.

  6. cromercrox says:

    We have something that gets us up regularly at 3 a.m. – it’s called a Golden Retriever. Apart from that I hereby declare that anyone who hasn’t raised small children is a wuss on the disease front. Such adorable little bundles of contagion, so they are.

  7. Steve Caplan says:

    I heartily agree with CromerCrox–until you live with “virus factories,” you don’t know what immunity is!

    As for tea–I ONLY drink it when I am sick. Hate the stuff–give me an espresso any day of the week…

  8. I have a phobia about throwing up too, Cath! I’m currently hiding from norovirus by not leaving the house. (Actually, it’s my first day of Christmas break! Woohoo!)

    I hope you feel better soon. Coughs suck. xxx

  9. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Good luck, Jenny! I’m rooting for you!

    Oh, and this blog is 100% immune from I-chose-to-have-kids-therefore-no-one-else-is-allowed-to-complain-about-anything-EVAH-itis 😉

  10. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    UGH – three people at last night’s family pre-Christmas party had had the norovirus within the last week. Including my brother-in-law, who sliced up a whole side of smoked salmon and handed it round before mentioning that he’d been sick.

    Mind you, the salmon was SO GOOD that it might almost be worth it, even if I get sick from it. I got a very nice sweater in the Secret Santa, too.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Speaking of delicious salmon, my favorite name of a researcher when writing student exam questions with a hypothetical experiment is Dr. Sal Monella…

      They never seem to appreciate my humor.

      • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

        During the last federal election, our (now former) neighbours had a sign in their front garden for the Conservative party candidate, Salomon Rayek. Every time I saw the sign, I’d think about how easy it would be to go out there with a can of white paint and turn it into Salmon Raper. But I ended up respecting the democratic process, even though the Conservative party didn’t.

  11. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    DOUBLE UGH – mere hours after celebrating the expiry of the 48 hour incubation period following the family Christmas party, we went over to some friends’ house to drop off our present for their daughter and found out after we’d been there about an hour that they’ve all been throwing up within the last 24 hours.

    I think I’m going to start making everyone I know sign a Sheldon Cooper-esque friendship contract stating that they won’t do this to me ever again.

  12. Pingback: RBO Work | VWXYNot?

Comments are closed.