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Your Foolproof Guide to Treating and Preventing the Flu

Coughing, sneezing everywhere! Bolster your knowledge and protect yourself from this year’s flu infection with these tips.
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Cover your mouth, disinfect your hands, and hide your children! The 2014 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… err, flu.

2014 Flu Season MapThis map indicates geographic spread, not the severity of influenza activity. All information was taken from CDC.govCompared to last year — when all but three continental states were suffering from widespread outbreak — 2014 isn't off to an awful start!
 

Serious InFLUence — The Need-to-Know

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 H1N1, also known as "swine flu" — the same strain that caused a serious flu pandemic back in 2009. Luckily, this year's flu vaccine was formulated to protect against three strains of the flu virus, including H1N1-like viruses (as well as viruses resembling last year's strain, H3N2).

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). Unfortunately, feeling fine doesn’t necessarily mean you’re in the clear (and neither is everyone around you). Experts warn 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

Vaccine1. Get a flu shot, and get it now.
The CDC recommends everyone older than 6 months get a flu vaccine, and particularly people older than 65, 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 typically those who recieve the vaccine are about 60 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. 

2. Get some shut-eye.
Studies suggest even a few days of not getting enough sleep can weaken the immune system [1]. 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.) Most experts believe the flu is spread mainly by little particles released into the air when infected people cough, sneeze, or even just talk. The particles can land in the mouth or nose of a healthy person and infect them, 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.

Hand Washing5. Wash your hands.
Use soap and warm water. If there isn’t a sink nearby, use alcohol-based hand sanitizer, which should help kill some of the creepy crawlies that wind up on our digits.

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 [2]. 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 [3]. (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 in the body, 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

Sick1. 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.

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. These drugs can also help prevent serious complications like pneumonia.

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) [1]. Keep aiming for those seven to nine hours a night (or more!) to help the body fight off sickness.

Lemon and Ginger Tea5. 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 are 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 January 2014. Select sources for this article were found through Docphin, a free platform that enables users to personalize, access, and connect through medical research.

Thanks to Greatist Expert Dr. Douglas Kalman and Dr. Marilee Benson for their input on this article.

How are you staying flu-free this year? Is hand sanitizer and hand washing enough, or is the flu shot a must? Share your thoughts and tips in the comments below or tweet the author @ksmorin.

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Works Cited +

  1. Neuroimmunologic aspects of sleep and sleep loss. Rogers, N.L., Szuba, M.P., Staab, J.P., et al. Department of Psychiatry, University of Pennsylvania, School of Medicine, Philadelphia, PA. Seminars in Clinical Neuropsychiatry, 2001 Oct;6(4):265-307.
  2. Exercise stress increases susceptibility to influenza infection. Murphy, E.A., Davis, J.M., Carmichael, M.D., et al. Division of Applied Physiology, Department of Exercise Science, Arnold School of Public Health, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC. Brain, Behavior, and Immunology, 2008 Nov;22(8):1152-5.
  3. Cigarette smoking and infection. Arcavi, L., Benowitz, N.L. Clinical Pharmacology Unit, Kaplan Medical Center, Rehovot, Israel. Archives of Internal Medicine, 2004 Nov 8:164(20):2206-16.

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