Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Common Cold -- in the US and Japan

Hello all,

I haven't posted for a while because I've been whacked with a rather persistent cold bug. Usually for me, I get a cold, stay home a day or two, do good home care like orange juice, hot tea, salt water gargling, nasal irrigation, and my body gets the bug on the run and I can go back to my life while my defenses mop up the enemy.

That wasn't how it happened this time. I ended up enduring a five or six day battle before my body got the invasion under control and turned the tide. Now, I'm getting over it, and down to the clean up stage, when I go through a box of tissues in one day, but it's clear I'm just disposing of all the casualties at this point.

This got me to thinking about how the US and Japan view the common cold--in my experience--and I thought I might write a bit about it. I'll start with some of the older, leftover superstitions about the cold (which I have heard of--there could be more) that a lot of people seem to hold onto, even though science says they're wrong.

What 'causes' a cold -- in the US:

  • getting your feet wet
  • staying out in the cold too long
  • getting your head wet (or in general getting any part of your body wet, especially outdoors)
  • not bundling up warmly enough

What 'causes' a cold -- in Japan:

  • letting your belly get cold
  • sleeping with your belly exposed
  • sleeping somewhere other than your bed (like, falling asleep in a chair or on the floor)
  • being cold and/or not bundling up warmly enough

What actually causes a cold:

  • a cold virus

I had a high school teacher who once insisted "it's not cold air; it's bad air" that causes a cold--and he was, of course, correct. Although environmental stressors, like getting too cold, may cause your immune system to be a bit wonky, you won't get a cold unless a cold virus finds its way to your soft, pink, vulnerable mucosa. That's why we're supposed to wash our hands and not stick our fingers in our eyes, nose, and mouth. Most people know that now, but it's amazing how superstitions persist.

For example, in the summer, it's so hot and humid here that I sleep in almost nothing, with no bed covers, on the floor in front of my wide open windows, with wet towels on me. When I told a Japanese acquaintance of this habit, she was certain I would get a cold from it, especially if I put a wet towel across my belly. In the US, I know an older lady who insists that sneezing must come with a cold. Thus, if you sneeze, you're getting a cold. If you're not sneezing, you must not have a cold--despite if you feel unwell.

My impressions of how the cold is treated in the two countries are also different. I don't know how Japan before western medicine treated colds, so I can't make an informed comment on that. In the US, chicken soup, garlic, and other herbs and oils and solutions are among of a number of debatable home remedies. Then, antibiotics came along and for a while doctors handed out antibiotics like candy. However, since antibiotics do not help in the fight against viruses, and the more antibiotics that are used, the faster bacteria evolves to be resistant to them, doctors have since had to pull back and try convincing people of the truth--that antibiotics will not shorten your cold.

So, how does the US and Japan treat colds these days? Here are what I have experienced.

Treating a cold in the US:

  • bed rest (spending a day or more home from work or school, as needed)
  • orange and other fruit juices, water, hot tea, and broth (possibly including chicken soup)
  • a humidifier, sometimes, to help keep nasal, throat, and lung passages moist
  • salt water gargling (especially for sore throats, some people irrigate their nose, too)
  • pain killers if the throat or lungs are sore and painful
  • sore throat drops, or cough drops to suck on
  • over the counter medicines to treat the symptoms, but which do not actually kill the virus
  • stubborn people might still manage to wrestle useless antibiotics away from doctors
  • some people have other natural, home remedies they are convinced work (such as zinc tablets, extra vitamin C, echinacea, ginseng, and other herbs or vitamins) at the time of writing, science is generally without a consensus as to whether any of these really work. They might, and certainly some home remedies and treatments can help with the symptoms and make a cold sufferer more comfortable.

Treating a cold in Japan:

  • don't surrender! (most people I know do not take time off for colds)
  • wear a mask (which might help prevent the spread, except that you begin being contagious three days before symptoms have begun, so you don't yet know you're sick, and so won't have any impetus to wear a mask until symptoms begin--and of course, the mask will not help your cold get better)
  • go to the doctor and get lots of medicine (the doctor here always gives me antibiotics and two or three other medicines when I have a cold--I never take any of them)
  • rest (which I don't see people doing)
  • stay warm
  • there may be others I'm not aware of

If there are other ways of treating a cold in Japan, I haven't heard of them. Whenever anything physical goes wrong with me, the response always seems to be "go to the hospital!" When I first heard that, I thought "wow, this person really thinks I'm sick--on the edge of Death's door even." However, when the Japanese say "hospital" in English, they usually just mean the doctor's office. Another question I get when I have a cold is "are you taking any medicine?"

It can get tiring. My patience for the Japanese pushing of hospitals and medicines is surely as tried as their patience when I tell them no, that I am treating the cold with other methods. I try not to growl and throw my hands in the air in exasperation, and I can see them resisting wringing their hands and shaking their heads with their knowledge of the certainty of my demise.

The problem with a lot of beliefs about the cold--in both Japan and the US--is that medicine will help you get better faster. It won't. Aside from taking an anti-viral medicine, which would be way overkill, there is no medicine that will cure the common cold. Antibiotics certainly won't: they work on a bacterial invasion. A virus is not a bacterium. It cannot be fought the same way.

The human body has no recourse but to firebomb the affected area of the body and clean out the wreckage until the virus has been expelled. That's why a cold is so painful and produces so much mucous. The symptoms are actually produced by the body's defense--not the virus' activities. Trying to get rid of the symptoms is interfering with your own body's efforts to win the war. On top of that, giving your body antibiotics when it's a viral infection is like giving your body a submarine when it's an aerial attack: useless.

Despite knowing this, in the deepest, darkest days of my cold, I was tempted to take the antibiotics the doctor here had given me--even though he'd only given me three day's worth, which would probably have been totally ineffective even if I had been enduring a bacterial infection. I got only a few days worth because he feared the side effects, when, if it had been meant to cure me, I would have needed a couple weeks of them, to be sure all the bacteria were dead and thus prevent breeding antibiotic-resistant super bugs and a more serious relapse.

I do wonder if Japan knows about the super bugs and that antibiotics don't work on viral infections. They seem to embrace western medicine, though with their own curious twists on it--like taking medicine for everything, and thinking that everything causes a fever. That's the second question, after the medicine one "do you have a fever?" I have to keep explaining that I usually don't run fevers. In fact, my body temperature is about a degree and a half lower than normal (in Fahrenheit) so a reading of normal for me, is a fever, but getting up to what is considered a real fever almost never happens, unless I'm really, really sick.

At any rate, getting medical care and experiencing the Japanese societal approaches to a cold bug are an adventure beyond the language barrier. US people and Japanese people both have quirks when it comes to that, which can give me pause. Being here in Japan to experience a new set of quirks is sometimes frustrating, sometimes amusing, and best viewed remembering that Japan is a whole new world.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Climbing Iwate-san

This is something I wrote out several months ago, but thought it might be a good addition to this blog, since it's about Japan. This entry recounts my climbing of Mount Iwate. It's rather long.

On July 6th, I climbed Iwate-san with the first year students at my high school. It was fantastic. Here is my recounting of the experience.

I versus E and the concept of "fun"


I've decided to write about a pet peeve, but I'll try not to turn it into a rant. Please feel free to comment if in fact I'm ranting without realizing. It's been known to happen.

This pet peeve is something I've dealt with my whole life, and have felt bad about my whole life: introverts versus extroverts and the concept of fun. I don't even like writing that "versus" bit. Why should we all be polarized to each other? Why can't the introverts say "hey those guys like to party--cool" and the extroverts say "hey those guys like to talk about the latest sci-fi TV show--cool"? Between partying and discussing sci-fi shows you really can't say that one has more value than the other. Neither one is world-shaking: merely a way to kick back, distract yourself from the daily grind, and hang with your friends, right? Okay, maybe if you're an introvert that would be *friend* singular.

I'm an introvert.

Some people *coughextrovertscough* don't think introverts exist. Rather, I have heard it claimed on many an internet forum or discussion group that so-called introverts are merely ugly people with no self-confidence or friends, but that if they just kicked themselves in the hindquarters, waved a magic wand to produce self-confidence, learned to apply make-up, styled their hair, and bought trendy clothes they would immediately have hordes of friends and be deliriously happy. (Okay, I changed the wording a little.)

I've read somewhere or other that extroverts may in fact live longer or show overall higher signs of happiness with their life than introverts. One personality test I took even made out my introversion to resemble a kiss of death when it came to having a "good" personality. "You're an introvert? Well forget having satisfaction with your life, friends, happiness, joy, a sunny future--heck, you might as well just give up and crawl back under your rock that apparently you emerged from for a few brief seconds to take this test with the hope of some good news only to find out after all that you really do belong under that rock."

Studies, however, suggests that introverts do indeed exist. Here's one. We're not an anomaly, and there may actually be physiological reasons for the two types of people--intros and extros. If you're interested in all the detailed science, by all means, look it up. I can summarize a bit though. Intros and extros use different parts of brain more often (intros use the front, and extros use the back--to generalize very broadly), and like to get a natural high off of different neurotransmitters (those are the chemicals that make things happen, thoughts grow, nerve cells connect, and all that in the brain).  The big one is dopamine.

Extroverts love dopamine. The dopamine they get from interacting with people and jumping off bridges totally gets their juices flowing in all the right ways. They love it so much, and need it so much in order to function happily, that they seek it relentlessly. Extroverts invented afterparties and extreme sports. Solitary confinement is indeed a punishment for an extrovert.

When you were a kid, and your parents sent you to your room for being bad, were you most dismayed at that, or did you just shrug like "whatever, I spend most of my time in there anyway"? For extroverts, who always want to be out and about, this would indeed have been a punishment. Introverts figured "well, all my toys are there, and my books, and my games, and my drawing supplies, and, and, and." To punish an introvert, send him or her to a loud party. Really. I know you extroverts don't believe me, but really. As an introvert, trust me on this one.

Introverts are highly sensitive to dopamine. A little goes a loooong way. Too much, and we start the "I have a headache, I have to go" excuses. Parties charge up extroverts, and exhaust introverts. I call it dopamine burn. That's sort of how it feels: like someone has been sandpapering my head, and if another person comes over to me to chat about something inane I'm going to shoot lasers out of my eyes. Plus, we intros like acetylcholine, I hear. Acetylcholine makes us feel good, promotes rest and relaxation, and encourages thinking.

Intros are big on thinking. That's why we're scientists and authors and poets and designers and old hermits that sit on mountaintops. If we go a little nuts, that's when we start planning to eliminate all humankind with our Raygun 4000 and help our friends the flying squirrels to take over the world--because flying squirrels don't judge us.

Do we network? No so much, unless we *have* to, but do we have friends--yes! Despite being introverts, most of us have friends (I don't mean the flying squirrels...I probably shouldn't have told you about them. Curses!). The thing is, introverts usually have one friend, some have two, a few may have three. Everyone else is an "acquaintance" or perhaps a "research associate." The title of friend is bestowed with much time and experience, and our friends are generally other introverts and highly treasured.

What do we do for fun with our friends? We talk about creative, conceptual, mystical, scientific, psychological, technical, or get-the-job-done stuff. Clothes (unless we're designing and making some), cars (unless we're repairing one), make-up (unless we're analyzing the ingredients), and that sort of thing, not so much. Celebrity breakups? I'd venture to say, never. We play card or board games, or possibly online games (but I'm really talking about in-person friends here). We travel together to historical or beautiful places. We play a sport or take a class together. We gripe about extroverts. We do things that let us think, that get that good-feeling-acetylcholine flowing.

This is the dynamic that makes extros and intros different. It's what makes the couple playing chess look over at the group of twenty having the wet T-shirt contest, and the group of twenty look back, and all simultaneously think "why would anyone do that? What losers."

Here comes my pet peeve. It seems that introverts usually keep this opinion to themselves. After all, extroverts (and pretend extroverts=introverts who follow the crowd to fit in) are far more numerous and majority preference rules, right? However, so many times in my life I've been looked at askance, mistrusted, disregarded, and questioned because I don't like to do what extroverts like to do. I don't go around asking the extroverts why they go clubbing or enjoy bungee-jumping, or accuse them of being a total bore because they don't read books or haven't seen the latest episode of that new sci-fi drama, do I? Nope. Maybe I think it, but I don't say it.

Some extroverts, however, seem to have no such compunctions. I don't party? I must not like people--specifically: them. (Actually, I do like people, just only certain people, in small doses. Whether I like them or not is usually irrelevant). I don't want to go to the football game? I must not have any loyalty to my home team. (Actually, I might or might not be interested in sports, but being crammed into a stadium full of screaming people--um, no. I'll skip that, thanks.)

The flak I've gotten for not going to parties, or leaving after a half an hour, not going to busy events, not being willing to be shoved into a room with a bunch of people for some non-mentally-stimulating purpose (which is a waste of my time, while I could be designing those rocket launchers or finishing writing my book), or not wanting to plunge at high speed across some sort of hard surface, be it rock, water, or snow--appears to be without end.

I make an effort. I go to parties from time to time. I've tried some high speed sports. But since I'm not taking every opportunity to do so, I am apparently making an attack on the extrovert's lifestyle--at least, I am, judging by the reactions. Extroverts, it's not a judgment call on you. It's simply that if I run too much dopamine through my system, my head will explode. Do you really want to pick up all the mushy bits of flesh from that? I didn't think so.

So please, let us introverts go on writing bestsellers and creating inventions. It's okay. If we wanted to, we would be out there doing the stuff you're doing. It's not that we lack self-confidence. We're incredibly confident in the things we do. Heck, we made the hadron collider. You've gotta be confident to create a machine that some people say could destroy the Earth. But you notice it hasn't yet. That's right, we got it under control.

Our choice of fun activity is no more an attack on extroverts than their choice is an attack on introverts--unless we choose to make it so with hurtful words and actions. We have different "feel good" chemicals that are triggered by different things, and thanks to the two types, our species has a much wider range of qualities and capabilities than if we only had one type. This is a good thing! Plus, everyone is a little different on the I-E spectrum. Some people are really extreme at one end or the other, but there are some people that are in the middle, that can enjoy both feel-good chemicals. This is even better! It's okay that we all enjoy different things.

So, if we can, let's try to quit some of the scorn and scoffing and name calling and snubbing. After all, as long as they aren't hurting you, how much does what someone else does matter? I think, not much at all.

There, end of my rant.

Mata, ne.