Opinion | ‘Tough it out, champ,’ and how we respond to illness

By Lynnette Tibbott, Staff Columnist

When I was 8 years old, I rode my bike up and down the parking lot of the old townhouse where I used to live. The lot was inclined, but it never bothered me. I liked the thrill of speeding down the hills, peddling back up and doing it all over again. 

Then I rode over a patch of gravel, and I steered sharply to the right. My tires skidded, and I landed on my leg. Gravel and dirt embedded into my skin. Blood pooled at the gash on my knee, and my elbows were torn up from trying to catch my fall. I was silent for the few seconds it took to process my injury, and then I began to cry.   

That was one of the first times I remember grasping the concept of my body’s fragility, and of my own mortality. At that moment, I understood the concept of risk and consequence. I realized I wasn’t guaranteed to last on this earth forever. As a child, I felt invincible. As an adult, I feel compelled to worry about the things I can’t control. 

After all, there’s so much to worry about. If I listed everything there was to worry about, I’d be writing for the rest of my life. One of the biggest worries I face, along with the country and even the world is disease — particularly viruses.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, global perception of viruses has changed. Although viruses have always existed, it seemed as though COVID-19 became the poster child for virus-prevention reform. As a result, it also brought forth the most public retaliation. Unlike other viruses, American society politicized COVID-19 to symbolize the clash of ideals between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. At its core, COVID-19 was and still is a public health crisis. 

Prescriptions can’t cure viruses. Viruses have to run their course, and recovery can last from days to a couple of weeks. Healthcare providers never know how an individual’s body will respond to a virus. They can only treat symptoms, and not the cause of the ailment itself. 

That’s why there’s so much emphasis on virus protection and wearing masks. Sadly, there’s no guarantee that someone will survive a virus. We often tend to think that young people have nothing to worry about — which can be false. Depending on a person’s genetics, their immune systems might have a harder time fighting off illness. 

Society often hears the mantra, “You just gotta tough it out.” Although this phrase is sometimes true, some people’s immune systems are physically incapable of fighting off disease on their own. A couple of weeks of mild cold symptoms for one individual could be another person’s fight for life. That’s why viruses — COVID-19, the VSR virus, the seasonal flu and monkeypox — should not be taken lightly. 

Just recently, I’ve been sick myself. My doctor couldn’t diagnose me with a specific ailment, but they assumed I had some minor mystery virus. My doctor told me that I could do nothing except to treat my symptoms and “tough it out.” 

I had no problem with toughing it out. It made me stronger in the end, and I’m appreciative that my immune system is always fighting in my corner, even when I get discouraged with myself. I found a stronger sense of admiration for my body. All biological processes try to do is maintain homeostasis and keep us alive. Regardless of how we feel about our situations or ourselves, our bodies objectively try their hardest to fight off infection and to keep our hearts beating.

Although it’s strictly biological, in a way I think it’s extremely comforting to know that our little army of white blood cells would quite literally put their lives on the line to protect us.

However, our bodies can’t be strong all the time. Viruses are deadly in the sense that nothing can cure them. On the other hand, bacterial infections, although they may pose similar symptoms to viruses, can be treated with antibiotics. Antibiotics are medications that work by killing the infectious bacteria that multiply in your body. However, antibiotics don’t just kill these “bad” bacteria, but the “good” bacteria as well, causing a lowered immune system until your gut’s microbiota can recover. Untreated bacterial infections may lead to sepsis, a lethal biological reaction to infection. 

Yet the overuse of antibiotic treatment can lead to another dilemma — antibiotic resistance. An ongoing debate exists around physicians overprescribing and patients misusing antibiotics. This misuse includes prescribing antibiotics to patients who would likely recover without them, and also misdiagnosing a virus and prescribing antibiotics that cannot work on viruses. 

So when exactly is the best time to seek medical care when you’re sick, and how will you know if you need antibiotic treatment? Generally speaking, there’s a golden area between the times you should seek medical care if you are able. Usually, a few days isn’t long enough to seek treatment unless you need immediate care, and in that case, you need to go to an emergency room. Likewise, waiting several weeks or months to seek care could prove even more harmful in future treatment.

For the general population, the recommended time to seek treatment depends on the severity and longevity of symptoms. If symptoms worsen within a week, a fever doesn’t go away, a cough lasts more than three weeks, you’re violently vomiting or have severe ear pain — it’s best to seek care as soon as possible. However, if you’re unsure, it’s always best to call your provider before making an appointment with them. 

Diagnosis and treatment are dependent on your healthcare provider, but there are typically a few problems that arise with seeking care or receiving treatment. Health is not nearly as simple as “sickness and prescription,” and many external factors such as socioeconomic status, citizenship status and race may pose a greater adversary for those seeking treatment.   

Financial status is often the biggest adversity, especially for individuals who do not have health insurance. Individuals without health insurance may feel stigmatized to seek care, and they may fear the legal or financial consequences of seeing a doctor. The issue of healthcare is multifaceted, and there’s no simple solution. Each individual must decide the best route for them individually, but there are many online resources to help individuals find the correct course of action, even without health insurance. Accessible and reliable healthcare is a privilege, and we should strive to value the health of all, not just the few. 

We all have people we love that struggle with health issues, and we need to do our best to prioritize not only our individual wellness, but also the health of others in our community. As I grow older, I think more and more about “What can hurt me and the people I love?” and “How can I stop it?” Sometimes, we can’t stop sickness from happening. We need to be aware that some aspects of our health are out of our control, and we must do the best we can to keep a positive mindset in the face of illness.

Next time you’re sick, please try to remember to keep a clear mind, to take care of yourself and to understand when you may need to seek treatment and when you must be strong and “tough it out, champ.”   

Lynnette Tibbott primarily writes about topics in the sciences and humanities. Write to her at [email protected]