During the 2018/19 flu season, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (or CDC) estimated that about 40 million Americans were infected with the flu virus. This resulted in about 500,000 hospitalizations and may have resulted in as many as 60,000 deaths. For many, dodging dangerous germs this flu season could literally save their lives.
The CDC tracks influenza cases and has calculated that flu season generally begins around October, ends around March, and peaks sometime between December and February. Now that the 2019/20 flu season has arrived, it is worthwhile to review some basic information about staying healthy. Here are five ways to dodge dangerous germs this flu season.
Understand the Flu
The first step to dodging flu germs is understanding what flu is. Flu, or more technically influenza, is a virus. Four types of flu exist: types A, B, C, and D. Only types A through C infect humans.
Flu is highly infectious. It is typically spread through coughs and sneezes. The virus can be caught by inhaling airborne virus particles or touching a surface the virus has infected. The flu virus can survive on a hard surface for up to 24 hours.
Flu is different from a cold. A cold is caused by a different virus, called rhinovirus. A cold can be annoying, but is generally not life-threatening. Typical cold symptoms include a runny nose, sore throat, and cough.
Flu symptoms, by contrast, include fever, chills, joint and muscle aches, sore throat, cough, and chest congestion. Flu is particularly dangerous for infants and senior citizens who are much more susceptible to complications from fever and chest congestion.
The CDC recommends that everyone over six months old receive the flu vaccine before the end of October. While the effectiveness of the vaccine varies from year to year, it reduced the likelihood of flu infection by about 50% during the 2018/19 flu season.
The flu vaccine contains deactivated flu viruses. When it is introduced into your body via injection or nasal spray, your immune system builds antibodies to battle the deactivated flu viruses. When your body encounters the real virus, it already has the antibodies to fight it off, thus protecting you from being infected.
Flu can take many different forms. Type A flu strains are the most dangerous. Swine flu, Spanish flu, and other viruses that have caused massive pandemics were all Type A. Type B flu strains are less dangerous but can still cause serious illness. The flu vaccine is typically formulated to contain Type A and B viruses. This means that you could still be infected by Type C flu viruses — the weakest type — or variations on the Type A and B viruses that were not included in the vaccine.
In addition to conditioning your immune system through vaccination, there are also steps you can take to keep your immune system healthy. Generally speaking, the healthier you are, the healthier your immune system is. Steps to staying healthy include:
- Getting enough sleep: Fatigue can deplete your immune system. The average adult needs between seven and nine hours of sleep per night, but you should try to fit in a couple of extra hours if you’re feeling under the weather. You are more likely to get sick when you are tired and run-down.
- Eating healthy: Plant-based foods and drinks, such as fruits, vegetables, and tea, contain antioxidants. These antioxidants can reverse age-related immune deficiencies. Green tea, for example, boosts your immune system with powerful antioxidants called polyphenols while only adding about 20 to 45 milligrams of caffeine for every 8-ounce cup.
- Exercising: Exercise slows down the release of stress hormones that may lower your immunity to infection.
- Quitting smoking: Smoking damages the lungs, making them less able to fight off viruses.
Since the flu vaccine leaves you exposed to Type C flu as well as the virus that causes colds, you will want to take precautions to reduce the risk of becoming infected. The most effective way to reduce the risk of infection is good hygiene, including:
- Reducing contact: While shaking hands may be customary, it can be a clear path for virus transmission. If you want to avoid being perceived as rude, carry some hand sanitizer with you and sanitize your hands after contact with other people. Most importantly, do not touch your nose, mouth, or eyes with unsanitized hands.
- Cleaning surfaces: As mentioned above, the flu virus can survive up to 24 hours on countertops, tables, door knobs, light switches, and other hard surfaces. Wiping surfaces with antimicrobial cleaners can kill the virus before it can be transmitted.
- Washing your hands: Handwashing can prevent any flu viruses you pick up from surfaces or contact with other people from entering your body.
Remember to pass on good habits to your roommates, children, or significant other as well. If they bring the flu home from school or work, your chances of becoming infected increase significantly.
If you do become sick, take care of yourself. The best way to do that is to stay at home if you catch a cold. This will reduce the chances of infecting anyone else. It will also reduce the chance of catching the flu while your body is fighting the cold.
If you catch the flu, quarantine yourself. Flu is contagious both before and during the time you experience symptoms. Going to work or school while symptomatic risks passing on the virus to others. If you are around infants or senior citizens, passing on the flu could be deadly.
If you experience a high fever, difficulty breathing, chest pain, or have symptoms that do not subside after two weeks, you may need to visit a doctor. If you are over the age of 65, under the age of 12, are pregnant, live in a nursing home, or have a compromised immune system, you should visit an urgent care center at the first sign of the flu. About 85% of urgent care centers are open seven days a week and can diagnose a case of flu. This allows the urgent care center to monitor your condition and quarantine you from infecting others who may also be at risk.
Dodging dangerous germs is possible if you understand what flu is and how it is transmitted, get vaccinated, stay healthy, and practice good hygiene. If you do get sick, quarantining yourself can reduce the risk of passing your virus on to others.