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Lower Your Risk of Getting the Flu

Flu prevention strategies

Key points

  1. Flu season occurs every year between late fall and early spring, typically peaking in January or February.
  2. There’s no way to completely guarantee your safety from the flu, but there are strategies to help prevent the spread of the virus.
  3. The best combination is a flu shot and good hygiene practices.

Flu season occurs every year between late fall and early spring, typically peaking in January or February. There’s no way to completely guarantee your safety from the flu, but there are strategies to help prevent the spread of the virus.

Get a flu shot

The flu shot is not 100-percent effective. But it’s still the simplest and most effective method of flu prevention for people ages 6 months and older. The flu shot can be easily scheduled with your family doctor or at health centers around your city. It’s now available at many drugstores and grocery store clinics without appointment.

There are a number of special flu vaccines as well. They include a high-dose vaccine for those over 65 and a nasal spray for healthy individuals between the ages of 2 and 50 who aren’t pregnant.

Certain populations not eligible for the nasal spray version of the flu vaccine include:

  • pregnant women
  • children under the age of 2
  • adults over the age of 50

If you are severely allergic to eggs or mercury, or have had an allergic reaction to flu vaccine in the past, you should consult a doctor before getting vaccinated.  

For the majority of the population, scheduling a flu shot may be just what it takes to make it through the year healthy and happy.

Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water

More than any other part of your body, your hands come into contact with:

  • the environment
  • your surroundings
  • germs

Your hands also interact with the passageways into your body, including your:

  • eyes
  • nose
  • mouth
  • ears

You risk picking up germs that are present when you touch surfaces in your environment, such as:

  • your office
  • the bus
  • a park

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the flu virus can live on hard surfaces for up to eight hours.

To help reduce your risk of influenza or any other contagious infection, it’s vital that you wash your hands thoroughly several times a day. Wash them after:

  • coming in contact with questionable surfaces
  • using the restroom
  • before touching your mouth or face

The Mayo Clinic recommends at least 15 seconds of vigorous scrubbing to rinse off germs.

An alcohol-based sanitizer is also a wise way to kill germs and protect against disease, especially if soap and water aren’t readily available.

Avoid touching your eyes, mouth, and nose

You may already wash your hands regularly, but they won’t be clean every minute of the day. That’s why it’s important to avoid touching the areas of your body that most easily absorb germs. These areas include the liquids in our:

  • eyes
  • mouth
  • nose

People who bite their nails risk ingesting germs more than most. Nail biters need to remember this important prevention tip: make every effort to avoid biting your nails while in public places.

Avoid crowds during flu season

It’s impossible to quarantine yourself during the lengthy flu season. But it’s wise to avoid unnecessary crowds and excessive travel. Both scenarios confine you in close, sometimes unventilated areas with many other people. Places that present the highest risk for flu infection are those with higher numbers of children or the elderly. These groups are most likely to get the flu. 

If you find that you must go to crowded places during peak flu season, make sure to practice good hygiene diligently. Practice the following measures:

  • Carry hand sanitizer.
  • Distance yourself from your sneezing neighbor.
  • Avoid excessive contact with your mouth.
  • Use a disinfecting wipe to disinfect surfaces you touch, such as armrests and grocery store carts.

Disinfect contaminated surfaces

You may think you’re free from the dangers of influenza exposure in the safety of your own home, but this isn’t true. Unlike other visitors, germs don’t knock on your front door. 

Countertops, especially those in the kitchen and bathroom, are teeming with germs. These are also settings where we are most in contact with our:

  • mouths
  • noses
  • genitalia

If you prepare a snack on a contaminated surface, chances are you’ll ingest those germs. Any object that children touch should be sanitized, including:

  • toys
  • faucets
  • floors

One tip from the CDC is to disinfect your kitchen sponges in the microwave for 30 seconds every evening, or run them through the dishwasher.

Symptoms of the flu

If you do become exposed to influenza, it usually lasts about seven to 10 days. Symptoms may include:

  • coughing
  • sneezing
  • headache
  • fever
  • chills
  • fatigue

What to do if you become sick

There is no cure for the flu, but you can take steps to reduce discomfort and feel better.

Get extra rest

Rest is important when fighting any illness. Rest keeps you indoors and prevents you from spreading the disease to others. It can also help your body to recover more quickly. Being sick is physically and mentally exhausting. Sleeping or laying down are necessary steps for recovery.

Drink plenty of fluids

A high fever causes the body to sweat and lose vital fluids. This can quickly lead to dehydration. Drinking liquids replaces lost fluids and helps flush out mucus and toxins.

Liquids can help soothe a scratchy and irritated throat. Hot tea with lemon and honey is a good choice, which can also help reduce cough. Other good options are:

  • water
  • fruit juice
  • electrolyte-enhanced sports drinks
  • soup

Often, the flu reduces appetite and makes it hard to consume food. Food gives our bodies energy to recover. Enriched juices and soups provide the body with necessary nutrients and calories. They are also easy to digest.

Try over-the-counter medicines

To help relieve body aches and headaches, take over-the-counter (OTC) medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), as directed. Don’t give aspirin to children or teens, as they are at risk for aspirin-related Reye’s syndrome, a rare yet sometimes fatal disease.

Be careful when administering drugs to babies. Read the directions carefully and talk to your pediatrician if you have any questions. Children under 5 years old, especially those 2 and under, and people with chronic health problems, such as asthma or diabetes, are at higher risk for developing flu-related complications. This is why it’s especially important for children 6 months and older to receive the flu vaccine.

Cough drops and cough medicine can also be taken to ease a sore throat and calm coughing. A simple gargle with warm salt water can also help. There are also many OTC decongestants to help with chest or nasal congestion. Read the labels carefully and talk to a pharmacist if you have any questions.

Take a warm bath

If your fever is high and uncomfortable, sponge off or immerse your body in lukewarm water to help reduce fever. Ice or cold water should be avoided, but lukewarm water may help alleviate discomfort. Breathing moist air may also help to clear a stuffy nose. Try breathing the moist air from a:

  • hot shower
  • sink
  • humidifier

Avoid spreading the flu

You may be contagious up to five or more days after symptoms appear. Do your best to protect others while you are sick. It’s best to avoid school and work settings while you are experiencing symptoms. Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, and wash your hands immediately afterward. This is an important way to avoid spreading germs to those around you.

When to seek medical help

Talk with your doctor if you find that home remedies don’t ease your symptoms, or if you need to continue medication for longer than a week.

Flu symptoms usually subside within one to two weeks. Contact your doctor if your symptoms:

  • last longer than two weeks
  • get worse
  • suddenly appear to improve, and then return with worsened symptoms

These may be signs of flu-related complications. The following groups of people are at higher risk for flu-related complications and should consider calling their doctor if they contract the flu:

  • people 65 and over
  • children younger than 5 years
  • women who are pregnant
  • people with weakened immune systems due to a chronic condition or the use of certain medications, such as steroids or cancer drugs

According to the CDC, pneumonia is one of the most serious complications of the flu. It’s also the most dangerous. For some, it can be deadly.

Complications of the flu may be life-threatening. Do not take any chances. Contact your doctor immediately if complications arise.

The takeaway

Your primary defense against the flu and any other contagious disease is good hygiene. Practiced alone, the hygiene tips listed here may not be entirely effective in helping you avoid influenza. When performed in conjunction with a flu vaccine, they are the best way to beat the virus.

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