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Flu cases are still on the rise. Getty Images
  • The CDC predicts there have been up to 5.3 million cases of the flu.
  • New research suggests that whatever strain you first picked up as a child will determine how well your immune system fights future flu infections.
  • Experts say there may be an uptick in flu cases during the holiday season.

It’s been a wild and unpredictable flu season so far.

The flu got an earlier start than usual this year, and a strain that’s particularly harsh among children (influenza B/Victoria viruses) is spreading rapidly across the country.

New estimates from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) predict there’ve been up to 5.3 million cases of the flu, between 32,000 to 57,000 flu-related hospitalizations, and nearly 1,800 to 4,500 deaths — 19 of which were children.

And new research from the University of Arizona suggests that whatever strain you first picked up as a child will determine how well your immune system fights future flu infections — and may explain why different age groups are more affected by certain strains. (For example, if you first encountered the B/Victoria strain as a child, you might have an easier time fighting it than those who initially dealt with an A strain).

Now, some health experts predict another wave of the flu is coming just in time for the holidays.

That’s not too much of a shock, though, as we frequently see an uptick in flu cases during the holiday season — especially of the influenza A variety.

For one, people are more likely to get sick in cold weather — viruses such as the flu can get stronger in low humidity and cold temperatures, and at the same time, our immune system weakens.

On top of that, people spend more time inside with family members and friends during the holiday season, allowing viruses to spread easily in close quarters.

Not to mention, tons of people travel over the holidays, and the flu virus can pass quickly from person to person on planes and trains.

If you come down with the flu and have plans to be around family during the holidays, there are a few ways to prevent the virus from infecting your entire family tree.

“The first line of defense is to encourage those at-risk persons, and their family members [and] friends, to get their own flu vaccines,” said Dr. David Mushatt, an infectious disease specialist and section chief of infectious diseases at Tulane University.

If you need to cough or sneeze, be sure to do so into a tissue or your sleeve to prevent the virus from spreading into the air. The flu virus, by the way, can land on a surface and stay infectious for hours.

Wearing a mask and keeping a distance from others, and washing your hands frequently, can cut the chances you’ll spread the virus around.

But, if your symptoms are severe or you have plans to be around older people or other at-risk individuals, such as those with a compromised immune system, health experts recommend taking it easy and staying home.

“The best option would be to avoid being in the same place as at-risk family members. While this may not be a popular choice, your presence has the potential to really be a big problem for your loved ones,” said Dr. Armand Dorian, the chief medical officer of USC Verdugo Hills Hospital and associate professor of clinical medicine at Keck School of Medicine of USC.

Dr. Jennifer Veltman, an infectious disease specialist at Loma Linda University Health, said while it may be a bummer to stay home, it’d be even worse to infect the rest of the family.

“With digital media nowadays, the sick family member can Skype or Facetime in to enjoy the celebration virtually,” Veltman recommended.

If you have holiday travel plans, it’s worth looking into travel insurance seeing as the flu virus spikes this time of year. (The CDC says there’s a 40 percent chance flu activity will peak in late December.)

“Traveling is a high risk activity for getting sick, and areas of high traffic are notorious for spreading disease,” Dorian said.

Even if you don’t get sick leading up to your travel plans, pack hand sanitizer and use it after touching doorknobs, countertops, and shaking hands.

And don’t forget about public touch screens — research has shown they’re hot spots for harmful bacteria and viruses.

Staying healthy during the holidays isn’t the easiest of tasks — thanks to all the food and drinks going around — but doing so can help keep your immune system strong.

“There is fairly good data that chronic alcohol abuse and binge drinking can weaken the immune system, but whether more moderate alcohol consumption does so is unclear. As with most things in life, moderation seems to be the key,” Mushatt said.

In addition, aim to eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables to get your fill of antioxidants and vitamins and keep your immune system working well. And, if possible, try to avoid too many fatty, sugary foods.

“Foods high in saturated fats can trigger inflammatory gut responses and lead to vulnerability to infection,” Veltman said.

If you do get sick, visit an urgent care or doctor immediately. Getting antivirals into your system within 48 hours of the first symptoms can significantly reduce the length and severity of your symptoms.

Finally, keep a good attitude. Spreading holiday cheer might end up being your best line of defense.

“Your attitude can act as a shield to help protect you from getting ill by reducing stress that can weaken your immune system,” Dorian said.

The holiday season is notorious for an uptick in flu activity. Viruses tend to get stronger in cold, dry weather and can spread easily as people huddle inside for festive gatherings.

Additionally, our immune systems tend to get weaker, thanks to all the drinking and fatty foods we consume this time of year.

Health experts recommend keeping up with your healthy habits over the holidays and steering clear of relatives (especially older ones) if you do come down with the flu.