With all that’s going on, no one can blame you if you’ve forgotten that flu season is still a thing. It’s one of the challenges we’re used to facing as humans, but things could easily turn sour if you wait too long to get ready.
Thankfully, it’s not that hard to build an influenza prevention plan to keep yourself and your loved ones safe.
According to CDC data, influenza has hospitalized an average of 440,000 U.S. residents per year over the past 10 years, and an average of 36,000 people per year have died from the flu.
Symptoms of influenza include:
- sore throat
- runny/stuffy nose
- body aches
While the symptoms normally pass in 5 to 7 days for most people, complications can cause larger problems.
People at higher risk of the disease (pregnant people, those who have certain health conditions like asthma or heart disease, people over 65, and children under 5) are also at higher risk of developing potentially life threatening side effects like pneumonia.
It’s especially important to prepare for flu season during a global health emergency. Public health authorities have urged mass flu vaccination at a time when additional hospitalizations could prove disastrous. Some experts also believe influenza could increase your risk of contracting diseases like COVID-19 or worsen the symptoms.
This doesn’t have to be the case. You can take some simple steps to protect yourself from influenza and might even develop healthier habits along the way.
Get your flu shot
Medical experts agree that the flu shot is without a doubt the best way to prevent influenza.
Kate Grusich, a spokesperson for the CDC, notes, “More flu vaccine than ever is available for flu season. Manufacturers have projected they will provide as many as 194 to 198 million doses of flu vaccine, which is more than the record of 175 million doses available during the 2019 to 2020 flu season.”
Practice physical distancing
Experts have also recommended keeping your distance to prevent viral spread. The CDC reports influenza can spread from one person to another up to 6 feet away. You can help protect yourself by keeping a 6-foot distance from others.
Avoid crowds when you can
Standing in a crowd, too close to others who might have the virus, increases your risk of contracting the flu. This is especially true if you’re in an enclosed area, where air re-circulation may increase your chance of encountering pathogens.
Wash your hands regularly
Washing your hands with soap and warm water is super effective at killing viruses like influenza. Wet your hands with warm or cool water, apply soap, and scrub away for 30 seconds or more. Make sure you lather up every part of your hands and wrists, including under your nails and between your fingers.
Disinfect frequently touched surfaces
Identify areas in your home or workplace that people touch often and disinfect them regularly. This could prevent the physical spread of influenza.
Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth
Viruses and other microbes hitching a ride on your hands after you’ve touched a contaminated surface could get introduced into your body after you touch your face. Reduce the risk by being more aware of how often you touch your face.
Wear a mask
Influenza primarily spreads through respiratory droplets launched by talking, sneezing, or coughing. If you have the virus, wearing a mask can help catch large droplets, protecting those around you.
Try to quit smoking and reduce alcohol intake
Smoking not only weakens your immune system but also could alter your respiratory tract to make you more susceptible to infections. Similarly, excessive drinking could reduce your immune response, making you more vulnerable to complications like pneumonia.
Drink plenty of fluids
Proper hydration boosts your immune response. Sounds like a great excuse to try some tasty juices that come with additional health benefits!
Eat healthy foods
Speaking of giving your immune system a bump, there’s a whole world of delicious and nutritious foods to keep you healthy and full.
Get some aerobic exercise
Getting in a cardio workout like jogging, cycling, or brisk walking helps activate your immune system. It also helps ward off health conditions like obesity, heart disease, and more.
The CDC recommends aiming for 150 minutes of moderate activity or 75 minutes of intense aerobic activity per week.
Keep your social life outdoors
When you’re hanging out, try to stick to the outdoors. While it doesn’t eliminate the risk of getting the flu, health authorities recommend it whenever possible.
Make sure your child’s school has good sanitation and prevention policies
Parents, you understand that controlling your home environment is one thing, but what happens when your kid is away is out of your hands.
Stay informed by making sure their school has policies in place in case of an influenza outbreak. Make sure they have proper disinfection protocols, as well as the supplies they need.
Check that your workplace is similarly prepared
Make sure you have the means to stay safe while at work. Ask your employer their plans in case of an outbreak and do your part to help keep common areas clean and disinfected.
Try to reduce stress and get plenty of rest
Stress and exhaustion could prove seriously damaging to your immune system and lead to a bunch of other issues like heart problems, memory difficulties, and more. Reducing stress and getting plenty of sleep can help fight off infection. We’ll touch on methods to help you rest better in a minute.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s a good idea to talk to a doctor for medical advice as soon as you notice flu-like symptoms like a fever or cough. If you get an influenza diagnosis, you should isolate yourself as much as possible to protect others while you manage your symptoms.
The transmission clock
According to the CDC, people with influenza can transmit it to others 1 day before their symptoms start and for 5 to 7 days after becoming sick. You’re most likely to transmit the virus 3 to 4 days after getting it.
Since symptoms typically start 2 days after you contract the virus, you could pass it to others before you even know you have it.
“The first thing is don’t go to work,” says Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “Don’t go to social occasions, stay at home, take your medication, call your healthcare provider, keep up your liquids… as you get dehydrated, you’re more inclined to develop pneumonia.”
Schaffner recommends sitting upright as much as possible and doing deep breathing exercises.
“You want to keep your lungs open and functional, so they’re not all collapsed from your sleeping for 10, 12 hours,” he says. “Collapsed lungs also predispose you to pneumonia.”
If you’re at risk of developing complications, your doctor may also prescribe antiviral medication such as zanamivir to speed up your recovery.
If you’re living in a communal home, Schaffner advises staying in your room as much as possible.
“Have people bring in food and leave quickly. Have people wear masks, and don’t interact in any close way with others when you start recovering,” he says. “If you do have to interact with your roommates, practice physical distancing.”
The key to preventing influenza is keeping your immune system strong year-round. The easiest, most natural way to do this is by focusing on diet, less stress, and more rest.
The amount of sleep we need varies from person to person, but the general recommendation for adults is 7 to 9 hours per night. Watch for signs of sleep deprivation like excessive daytime drowsiness, memory problems, or an inability to concentrate. If you’re experiencing any of these, you might want to catch up on your Zzz’s.
Some ways you might be able to improve your sleep habits:
- Reduce blue light exposure at night.
- Cut out caffeine late in the day.
- Keep a regular sleep schedule.
- Sleep in the nude.
- Take a melatonin supplement.
- Follow a consistent nighttime routine.
To stave off anxiety and fatigue:
- Schedule time to relax and unwind.
- Go for a walk in nature.
- Do some deep breathing.
- Listen to calming instrumental music.
- Get lost in a good book.
It’s never too early to start building healthy habits to protect yourself. Flu prevention is a year-round practice and shouldn’t be reserved only for flu season.
Remember, if you can help it, it’s better to be proactive than reactive. Stay healthy and stay safe out there.
Kevin Jiang is a Canadian journalist covering health, science, and a bunch of other neat stuff. Read more from him on Twitter.