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. This is especially critical this year with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
There are five essential strategies to avoid catching the flu.
Get a flu shot
The flu shot isn’t 100 percent effective, but it’s still the simplest and most reliable method of flu prevention for people ages 6 months and older.
The flu shot can be easily scheduled with your doctor or at local pharmacies and health centers. It’s now available at many drugstores and grocery store clinics without appointment.
Some of the usual places you might find flu shots, such as offices and schools, may be closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
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 certain people between the ages of 2 and 50 who aren’t pregnant.
Other factors may prevent you from getting the nasal vaccine, such as cochlear implants, asthma, allergies, and the use of other antivirals.
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If you’re severely allergic to eggs or mercury or you’ve 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 this critical year healthy and happy. Aim to get the shot in September or October.
Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water
Now more than ever, good hygiene is essential to protect yourself from the flu and other contagious diseases like COVID-19. More than any other part of your body, your hands come into contact with:
- the environment
- your surroundings
Your hands also interact with the passageways into your body, including your:
You risk picking up germs when you touch surfaces in public settings, such as:
- your offices and schools
- public transportation and air travel
- public spaces like parks and stores
- large gatherings like parties and events
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
- after using the restroom
- before touching your mouth or face
- before eating
The Mayo Clinic recommends thorough and frequent hand washing to prevent common infections. They recommend alcohol-based hand sanitizers if soap and water aren’t 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, and 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.
While many of us are already self-quarantining during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s also helpful to isolate yourself as much as possible if you suspect you have the flu.
During any flu season, 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.
If you must go to crowded places during peak flu season, make sure to practice good hygiene diligently. Take the following measures:
- Wear a face covering while COVID-19 is still a factor.
- Once COVID-19 is under control, continue wearing a face covering if you experience any symptoms of the flu.
- 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.
High-touch areas like countertops, especially those in the kitchen and bathroom, are teeming with germs. These are also settings where we’re most in contact with our mouths, noses, and 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:
- door handles
If you do become exposed to influenza, it usually lasts about 7 to 10 days. Symptoms may include:
Flu symptoms can overlap with a number of other respiratory infections, including COVID-19.
If you experience any of these symptoms, be sure to self-isolate, wear a mask, and practice good hygiene while waiting for your test results.
There’s 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 also 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 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 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. Other good options are:
- fruit juice
- electrolyte-enhanced sports drinks
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.
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’re 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.
Avoid spreading the flu
You may be contagious up to 5 or more days after symptoms appear. Do your best to protect others while you’re sick. It’s best to avoid school and work settings while you’re 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.
Note that the timeline of being contagious for the flu and other conditions like COVID-19 may be different. Consult your doctor for specific guidelines on COVID-19.
You’ll want a test to discount COVID-19 as the cause of your symptoms and determine that it’s the flu.
After that, 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 1 to 2 weeks. Contact your doctor if your symptoms:
- last longer than 2 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, especially this year. Don’t take any chances. Contact your doctor immediately if complications arise.
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’re the best way to avoid the virus.