The flu is a respiratory infection that affects many people each year. Anyone can get the virus, which can cause mild to severe symptoms.
Common symptoms of the flu include:
- body aches
- runny nose
- sore throat
These symptoms typically improve in about a week, with some people fully recovering without complications.
But in older adults whose immune systems might be weaker, the flu can be dangerous. The risk of flu-related complications like pneumonia is higher in older adults.
It’s also even more important to take precautions this year, since COVID-19 is still a factor.
Here’s a look at practical ways to keep yourself safe during this doubly dangerous flu season.
Avoiding large crowds can often be difficult, but it’s crucial during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a typical year, if you’re able to limit contact with people during flu season, you can reduce your risk of getting an infection.
The flu can spread quickly in confined spaces. This includes schools, workplaces, nursing homes, and assisted-living facilities.
If you have a weaker immune system, wear a face mask whenever you’re in a public place during flu season.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, a face covering is highly recommended and sometimes mandated, depending on where you live.
You can also protect yourself by staying away from people who are sick. Keep your distance from anyone who’s coughing, sneezing, or has other symptoms of a cold or virus.
Because the flu virus can live on hard surfaces, get into a habit of regularly washing your hands. This is especially important before preparing food and eating. Also, you should always wash your hands after using the bathroom.
Carry a bottle of hand sanitizing gel with you, and sanitize your hands throughout the day when soap and water are unavailable.
You should do this after coming into contact with commonly touched surfaces, including:
- light switches
Not only should you wash your hands regularly, but you should also make a conscious effort not to touch your nose, mouth, or eyes. The flu virus can travel in the air, but it can also enter your body when your infected hands touch your face.
When washing your hands, use warm soapy water and rub your hands together for at least 20 seconds. Rinse your hands and dry with a clean towel.
To avoid touching your face, cough or sneeze into a tissue or into your elbow. Throw tissues away promptly.
Strengthening your immune system is another way to protect yourself against the flu. A strong immune system helps your body fight off infections. And if you do become sick, a strong immune system helps reduce the severity of symptoms.
To build your immunity, sleep at least 7 to 9 hours per night. Also, maintain a regular physical activity routine — at least 30 minutes, three times a week.
Follow a healthy, nutrient-rich eating plan, as well. Limit sugar, junk foods, and fatty foods. Instead, eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, which are full of vitamins and antioxidants, to promote good health.
Talk to your doctor about taking a multivitamin to provide immune system support.
Make sure you get a flu vaccination each year. The predominant circulating flu virus changes from year to year, so you’ll need to update your vaccination each year.
Keep in mind that it takes about 2 weeks for the vaccine to be effective. If you get the flu after a vaccination, the shot may reduce the severity and duration of your illness.
Due to the high risk of complications in people over the age of 65, you should get your flu vaccination early in the season, at least by late October. Talk to your doctor about getting a high-dose or adjuvant vaccine (Fluzone or FLUAD). Both are designed specifically for people ages 65 and older.
A high-dose vaccine contains about four times the amount of antigen as a regular flu shot. An adjuvant vaccine contains a chemical that stimulates the immune system. These shots are able to build a stronger immune response to vaccination.
In addition to getting your annual flu shot, ask your doctor about the pneumococcal vaccinations. These protect against pneumonia, meningitis, and other bloodstream infections.
The current COVID-19 pandemic may have already gotten you into good cleaning and hygiene practices.
If someone in your home has the flu, you can reduce your risk of contracting it by keeping surfaces in your house clean and disinfected. This can kill flu germs.
Use a disinfectant cleaner to wipe down doorknobs, telephones, toys, light switches, and other high-touch surfaces several times each day. The sick person should also quarantine themselves to a certain part of the house.
If you’re caring for this individual, wear a surgical mask and gloves when attending to them, and wash your hands afterward.
Because the flu can be dangerous for people over the age of 65, visit your doctor if you develop any symptoms of the flu.
Symptoms to watch for include:
- sore throat
- body aches
- runny or stuffed-up nose
Some of these symptoms overlap with other respiratory infections like COVID-19. It’s important to self-isolate, wear a mask, and practice good hygiene while waiting for your test results.
There’s no cure for the flu. But if you’re exposed to the virus and see a doctor early, you might be able to receive a prescription antiviral medication such as Tamiflu.
If taken within the first 48 hours of symptoms, an antiviral may shorten the duration of the flu and reduce the severity of symptoms. As a result, there’s a lower risk of complications like pneumonia.
The flu virus is dangerous in the elderly and more vulnerable populations and can lead to life threatening complications. Take preventive steps to protect yourself and reduce the risk of illness, especially this year.
Talk to your doctor about getting a flu vaccination, and be proactive about strengthening your immune system and avoiding contact with symptomatic people.