Lower Your Risk of Getting the Flu

Written by Eloise Porter | Published on October 20, 2014
Medically Reviewed by Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, MPH, MBA on October 20, 2014

How to Lower Your Risk of the Flu

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.

Flu Vaccine

While the flu shot is not 100 percent effective, 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 are not 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

People who are severely allergic to eggs or mercury or have had an allergic reaction to flu vaccine in the past should consult with 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 this year healthy and happy.

Your primary defense against the flu and any other contagious disease, however, will always be good hygiene. Practiced alone, these tips may not be entirely effective in helping to elude influenza. When performed in conjunction with a flu vaccine, they are the best way to beat the virus.

Wash Your Hands Thoroughly with Soap and Water

Your hands come into contact with the environment, your surroundings, and germs more than any other part of your body. They also interact with the passageways into your body, including your eyes, nose, mouth, and ears. Touching surfaces at your office, on a bus, or at a park puts you at risk for picking up the germs that are present all around us. 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 is vital that you wash your hands thoroughly several times a day. Wash them after coming in contact with questionable surfaces, using the restroom, and before touching your mouth or face. The Mayo Clinic recommends at least 15 seconds of vigorous scrubbing to rinse off germs.

Using an alcohol-based sanitizer is also a wise way to kill germs and protect against disease, especially when soap and water are not readily available.

Avoid Touching Your Eyes, Mouth, and Nose

Washing your hands is an important precaution to take in order to avoid exposing yourself to infection. Our hands can’t be clean every minute of the day. Since our bodies most easily absorb germs through the liquids in our eyes, mouth, and nose, it’s important to avoid touching these areas.

People who bite their nails risk ingesting germs more than most. They should be especially aware of this prevention tip. Nail biters should try especially hard to not bite their nails while in public places.

Avoid Crowds During Flu Season

Although it’s impossible to quarantine yourself entirely during the lengthy flu season, it’s wise to avoid unnecessary crowds and excessive travel. Both confine you in close, 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, as these groups are more likely to get influenza. 

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

  • Carry hand sanitizer.
  • Distance yourself from your sneezing neighbor.
  • Avoid excessive contact with your mouth.
  • Disinfect the armrests with a disinfecting wipe. This can apply to other surfaces, too, such as 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. 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, and genitalia.

If you prepare a snack on a contaminated surface, chances are you will be ingesting those germs. Any object that children touch should be sanitized as well, including toys, faucets, and floors. One tip from the USDA is to disinfect your kitchen sponges in the microwave for at least one minute to get rid of germs.

What to Do If You Become Sick

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

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

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 combating any illness. Not only does it keep you indoors and prevent you from spreading the disease to others, it can also help your body to recover more quickly. Being sick is physically and emotionally exhausting. Sleeping and lying 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 not only replaces lost fluids, it also eases an irritated throat and helps flush out mucus and toxins.

Hot tea with lemon and honey may soothe a scratchy throat. 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 an easy-to-digest way to get necessary nutrients and calories into the body.

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 (especially those 2 and under) and people who have 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 ages 6 months and over 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 fever is high and uncomfortable, you can sponge 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 from a hot shower, sink, or vaporizer may also help to clear a stuffy nose.

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. Covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze and washing your hands immediately afterward is also 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. However, if flu symptoms last longer than two weeks, get worse, or suddenly appear to improve and then return with worsened symptoms, contact your doctor. These may be signs of flu-related complications. The following groups 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 five
  • 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 Mayo Clinic, pneumonia is the most common complication of flu. It’s also the most dangerous. For some, it can be deadly.

These complications may be life threatening, so do not take any chances. 

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