Cover your mouth, disinfect your hands, and hide your children! The 2015 flu season has begun. While the ubiquitous (and perhaps dreaded) flu shot is the best way to prevent getting sick, no one is completely immune. So it’s important for everyone to be well-informed and ready to fight off the plague.
The sickness we all know by one term—“the flu”— can actually be caused by a number of different virus strains, each with their own specific traits. This year’s most prominent strain (so far) is called H3N2, says Martin S. Hirsch, M.D., a senior physician in the Infectious Diseases Service at the Massachusetts General Hospital and professor of medicine at the Harvard Medical School.
The H1N1 "swine flu" strain is still out there, but luckily, this year's flu vaccine was formulated to protect against four strains of the flu virus, including H1N1-like viruses, Hirsch says.
Afraid you’ve been infected? Flu symptoms typically include: fever (or just feeling feverish or having chills), cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, fatigue, vomiting, and diarrhea (more common in children). While most of those may sound similar to the common cold, watch out for the triad of feverish feelings, muscle aches, and cough, Hirsch says.
Looking for a tell-tale sign? The cough is especially characteristic—otherwise you may just be in common cold territory says Stephen Turner, M.D., medical director at Mount Sinai Brooklyn Heights.
Unfortunately, feeling fine (or just not terrible) doesn’t necessarily mean you’re in the clear, and neither is everyone around you. Turner says that it’s actually possible for a person to pass the flu to someone else before even knowing they’re sick. The infectious period typically begins one day before a person starts feeling sniffly and lasts up to a week after they’ve started showing symtoms.
Victory Over Virus — Your Action Plan
Whether you’re already sniffling or just want to prevent yourself from getting sick, here are our science-backed tips to help you stay healthy this flu season.
To Prevent Infection
1. Get a flu shot, and get it now.
The CDC recommends everyone older than 6 months get a flu vaccine, and Turner says it's particularly important for people older than 65, younger than 5, pregnant women, or anyone with asthma, emphysema, or chronic lung disease (i.e., those at a higher risk of complications if infected).
Effectiveness varies, though Hirsch says typically those who recieve the vaccine are about 50 to 70 percent less likely to need treatment for the flu later on. The flu shot can be found at many pharmacies or at the doctor’s offices, and it’s not too late to take it: The CDC says that people can (and should) get vaccinated as long as flu viruses are circulating (as early as October, and as late as May), but it takes about two weeks after recieving the vaccination for it to provide protection against the flu.
While Turner says it's important people have realistic expectations for the flu vaccine (it's not necessarily going to keep you from the flu altogether), the benefits vastly outweigh the pinprick of discomfort. "It doesn’t have to be 100 percent effective—maybe the duration of the illness is shortened, or the severity of the illness is shortened. Immunity is better than no immunity."
2. Get some shut-eye.
Studies suggest even a few days of not getting enough sleep can weaken the immune system. Neuroimmunologic aspects of sleep and sleep loss. Rogers NL, Szuba MP, Staab JP. Seminars in clinical neuropsychiatry, 2001, Dec.;6(4):1084-3612. Get those seven to nine hours a night to keep that army of antibodies as strong as can be!
3. Stay away from sick people.
(And stay away from healthy people if you’re sick.) The flu's mode of transmission is through the respiratory system, meaning that it enters either through the nose or the mouth of a person, says Justin Davis, M.D., chief of on-call medical services at FirstLine Medical. So if you're within three feet of someone half-heartedly covering their cough, the particles can get in you directly and infect you too.
4. Keep your hands off your face.
Touching an infected surface (such as a door knob, subway turnstile, or library table) and then touching your own mouth, eyes, or nose could transmit and cause sickness, Turner says. If you want to be particularly proactive (or have a sick roommate), he also advises taking a Lysol wipe to shared surfaces a few times a day.
5. Wash your hands.
6. Stick to healthy foods.
Many of our favorite superfoods are packed with antioxidants and nutrients thought to strengthen immune systems and bolster health. (Need some inspiration? Check out these 30 Superfood Recipes.) Adequate protein is also important, says Greatist Expert Dr. Doug Kalman. Our immune systems are powered by protein, so maintaining a diet of at least 12 to 15 percent protein is key.
7. Work out!
Exercise can keep that immune system strong. One study linked regular moderate exercise to decreased risk of infection (when compared to a sedentary state). But that doesn’t mean it’s a great idea to set out on a 25-mile run if you're feeling under the weather: Other research suggests intense exercise can actually increase infection risk, so stick to moderate exercise if you feel the sneezes coming on. Exercise stress increases susceptibility to influenza infection. Murphy EA, Davis JM, Carmichael MD. Brain, behavior, and immunity, 2008, Jun.;22(8):1090-2139. And yes, there is such thing as being too sick to work out: If you're just dealing with the sniffles or a sore throat, it should be safe to hit the gym, but if it's chest congestion, body aches, or a stomach bug that's got you down, it's probably best to hit the bench until you're feeling better. If you do opt for a sweat session, be sure to avoid germs at the gym too.
8. Stop smoking.
Smoking can hinder our respiratory systems (duh) and decrease immune response. In fact, one study found that controlling exposure to cigarette smoke is key to reducing the risk of flu infection in adults. Cigarette smoking and infection. Arcavi L, Benowitz NL. Archives of internal medicine, 2004, Dec.;164(20):0003-9926. (Yet another reason to quit smoking for your own health and the health of those around you!)
9. Stay hydrated.
Kalman stresses the importance of avoiding dehydration, since it can negatively impact the immune system. Staying properly hydrated is essential for a number of body functions, including proper transport of nutrients, body temperature regulation, and digestion, and it might also help ease decongestion. That said, drinking fluids hasn’t been scientifically proven to beat sickness in one swoop, so don’t rely on it as a cure-all.
If You Get Sick
1. Stay home.
According to the CDC, people are generally contagious the day before symptoms start and for at least five days after getting sick. If you don’t feel 100 percent, quarantine yourself for the good of all humanity. And for the good of your roommate, avoid the shared hand towels—Davis says it only takes one exposure to infect someone.
2. Consider an antiviral drug.
If you’re sick as a dog and need more relief than a bottle of ginger ale and some unsalted crackers can provide, talk to your doctor about getting a prescription for an antiviral drug to help reduce symptoms and shorten the “really freakin’ sick” time by a day or two (they can also help prevent serious flu-related complications, like pneumonia). While it's best to start them within two days of getting sick, they can still give relief if taken later on—it's never too late.
And if your roommate is stricken, don't hesitate to call your doctor and explain the situation—Turner says that if you take an antiviral once a day for 10 days, it can significantly decrease your chances of getting the flu.
3. Take a pain reliever.
Over-the-counter meds like acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) can help lower fever.
4. Get plenty of rest.
Sleep deficiency can weaken the immune system, which doesn’t exactly speed up recovery time (especially when we’re already sick). Neuroimmunologic aspects of sleep and sleep loss. Rogers NL, Szuba MP, Staab JP. Seminars in clinical neuropsychiatry, 2001, Dec.;6(4):1084-3612. Keep aiming for those seven to nine hours a night (or more!) to help the body fight off sickness.
5. Drink lots of fluids.
It’s easy to get dehydrated thanks to a fever, excessive sweating, or vomiting. Drink lots of fluids—including warm ones (Yes, chicken soup counts—and here are 31 of our favorite recipes!). Water or tea is great, but if you're vomiting or have a high fever, it may be smart to replenish electrolytes with a sports drink or electrolyte-enhanced drink such as Pedialyte too.
6. Don't risk it.
If symptoms persist or get worse (or if you have any other personal reason for concern), head to the doctor. When you're unsure, it's always best to consult a medical professional.
Originally posted January 2013. Updated November 2015.