This year’s flu season has been a bad one and it’s not over yet. Contrary to popular belief, the flu season in the United States can last as late as May.
If you or someone you know has come down with the flu, you’re probably aware that the virus has been particularly harsh this year due to its widespread and intense activity.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a cumulative rate of 86.3 influenza-associated hospitalizations per 100,000 people was reported between Feb. 25 and March 3, 2018 (1).
Don’t assume it’s too late to get the flu. You should still take necessary precautions to prevent it. Before learning about the preventive tips, it is important to understand the flu itself.
The flu is a respiratory illness caused by flu viruses. Flu viruses are classified into three groups: A, B and C. Influenza A and B are the most common and are responsible for the annual seasonal flu as well as the occasional pandemics linked to new strains and subtypes. This year’s influenza variant, Type A, subtype H3N2, is particularly nasty
Symptoms of the flu include a fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches and fatigue. Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in young children than adults.
Millions of Americans suffer from such symptoms during flu season, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (2). While the symptoms may be similar to those of the common cold, they are usually more severe with the flu.
Flu viruses spread mainly by tiny droplets that travel through the air when people who have the flu cough, sneeze or talk. The flu spreads quickly and is highly contagious.
Irrespective of the type of viruses that cause influenza, there are several preventive measures that can protect you and your family from the flu.
Here are some of the ways to protect yourself from the flu.
1. Get Vaccinated
Getting the flu vaccination is the best and most effective way to avoid the flu as well as lessen the severity of the illness if you become infected.
The flu vaccine causes antibodies to develop in the body about a couple of weeks after being vaccinated. These antibodies provide protection against the viruses that are in the vaccine.
Ideally, you should get vaccinated before the flu season starts. But experts say you should still get vaccinated as long as flu viruses are circulating.
The CDC recommends that everyone above the age of 6 months get a flu vaccination (3).
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends three main types of flu vaccinations for the following people (4):
- Standard flu shot for anyone above 6 months.
- Intradermal flu shot for adults aged 18 to 64.
- High-dose flu shot for older adults.
In addition, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only injectable flu shots are recommended this year; the nasal spray vaccine – Live attenuated influenza vaccine (LAIV) – is not recommended for use this season due to concerns over its level of effectiveness (5).
Your doctor can advise you about available vaccines and which is best for you.
2. Cover Your Mouth and Nose When Coughing or Sneezing
To prevent the spread of the flu, it is important to cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. This simple etiquette is important for infection-control measures, as it prevents infectious droplets from making other people ill.
A 2014 study published in the Journal of Fluid Mechanics shows that the smaller cough and sneeze droplets travel farther distances – 5 to 200 times farther (6).
Despite being a very important preventive measure, many people do not follow this hygiene habit.
According to a 2010 survey by the American Society for Microbiology, approximately one out of every four people observed in a public setting failed to cover their mouth when they coughed or sneezed. Plus, less than 5 percent of people covered their mouth using methods recommended by public health officials (7).
Use a tissue to cover your cough or sneeze, then throw it in the trash can and wash your hands. If a tissue is not available, sneeze or cough into the inside of your elbow.
3. Avoid Touching Your Eyes, Nose or Mouth
Flu-causing germs often spread when a person touches something that is contaminated, and then touches his or her eyes, nose or mouth.
The CDC reports that the flu virus can “live” on some surfaces for up to 24 hours (8).
You can get infected if you touch a contaminated doorknob or light switch, and then rub your eyes or bite your nails.
Even though you may wash your hands regularly, they won’t be clean every minute of the day. It’s best to just avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth as much as possible. Also, remind your children not to rub their eyes or put their hands in their mouth.
4. Wash Your Hands Often
Whether it is the flu season or any time of the year, it is important to keep your hands clean.
It is often through dirty hands that harmful microbes enter the body. Poor hand hygiene is one of the main reasons behind the spread of flu viruses.
You must try to wash your hands every time you sneeze or cough, and especially before meals.
Instead of just washing your hands with plain water, use soap and water. After applying the soap, make sure to rub your hands together for about 20 to 30 seconds to lather it up, then rinse off the soap completely with clean water.
Also, keep alcohol-based hand cleaners around the house and in your pocket or purse. As commercial hand cleaners may contain toxic ingredients as well, you can prepare your own hand sanitizer at home with all natural ingredients.
However, avoid excessive hand washing as it can lead to dry, cracked skin, which increases the chance of microbes entering the body and causing an infection.
5. Avoid Close Contact
During the flu season, it is important to avoid close contact with people who are sick. The flu virus can travel through the air in small droplets when projected by a cough or sneeze.
As it is not always possible to assess whether someone is suffering from the flu, it’s best to keep your distance from anyone with likely symptoms.
It is also recommended to avoid unnecessary crowds and excessive travel.
Along with keeping your distance, you must also avoid sharing washcloths, towels, dishes, toys, utensils and other personal items with a sick person.
Similarly, when you are sick, keep your distance from others to protect them from getting sick too. Stay home from work, school and running errands when you are sick.
6. Clean Your Home
Flu germs and viruses might be present on items you touch every day. Hence, keeping your house and surrounding area clean is very important.
When it comes to cleaning, focus more on household surfaces. Surfaces might be contaminated with the flu virus, especially if you’re living with someone who has the flu.
It is recommended to wipe down commonly touched surfaces like phone chargers, fridge handles, and doorknobs at least once a day using any standard household cleaner.
Some other hot spots for germs include kitchen sponges, dishcloths, cutting boards, home desks, floors, sinks and toilets. Clean and disinfect these hot spots regularly.
Change bedsheets and pillowcases often, and wash them in warm water and dry them on a hot setting.
Always wash your hands immediately after handling dirty laundry as well as utensils.
7. Lead a Healthy Lifestyle
When it comes to protecting yourself from the flu, you simply cannot ignore the benefits of a healthy lifestyle.
Following a healthy lifestyle can help boost your immunity and fight off illnesses.
- Spend at least 30 minutes daily doing physical exercise.
- Eat a healthy diet that includes a variety of raw fruits and vegetables and avoid processed food as much as possible.
- Avoid stress, as it damages the immune system and the heart.
- Enjoy proper rest and sleep, as it can do wonders for your body. Get at least eight hours of peaceful sleep every night.
- As the human body is mostly made up of water, stay well-hydrated by drinking enough water.
- Avoid drinking too much alcohol and say “no” to smoking.
- As dry air helps the flu virus live longer, consider using a humidifier to keep the indoor humidity at 30 to 50 percent.
- Expose your body to early morning sunshine for 10 minutes daily to help your body make vitamin D, a necessary vitamin for your immune system.
- Include more immune-boosting foods in your diet, such as ginger, garlic, turmeric, olives, honey and grapefruit.
- Wear surgical gloves when caring for someone who’s sick.
- Encourage others to trash their used tissues.
- Keep your lips off infected partners.
- Avoid sleeping in the same bed with someone who is sick.
- During the flu season, keep the windows and doors closed.
- Avoid sending your child to play outside with other children.
- Store your toothbrush in a cabinet or somewhere that it is not likely to pick up airborne germs.
- Do not share food with infected people.
- Do your own dishes when you are sick.
- When sick, get as much sleep and rest as possible.
- Influenza (Flu). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/weekly/index.htm. Published March 09, 2018.
- Influenza. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. https://www.niaid.nih.gov/diseases-conditions/influenza. Published March 13, 2018.
- Influenza (Flu). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/qa/flushot.htm. Published December 14, 2017.
- Approved Products – Fluzone, Fluzone High-Dose and Fluzone Intradermal. U S Food and Drug Administration Home Page. https://www.fda.gov/BiologicsBloodVaccines/Vaccines/ApprovedProducts/ucm112854.htm.
- Influenza (Flu): Frequently Asked Flu Questions 2017-2018 Influenza Season. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/season/flu-season-2017-2018.htm. Published March 01, 2018.
- Violent expiratory events: on coughing and sneezing | Journal of Fluid Mechanics. Cambridge Core. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-fluid-mechanics/article/div-classtitleviolent-expiratory-events-on-coughing-and-sneezingdiv. Published March 24, 2014.
- One in four not covering coughs, sneezes. ScienceDaily. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/07/100712121832.htm. Published July 12, 2010.
- INFLUENZA (FLU) Cleaning to Prevent the Flu. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/immigrantrefugeehealth/pdf/seasonal-flu/contamination_cleaning_english_508.pdf.