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Influenza (the flu) is one virus in the orthomyxovirus family. The flu is a common viral infection in the United States, with “flu season” running from October through March. Infection rates tend to peak in February. In the 2018–2019 flu season, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that nearly 42.9 million people were infected, 647,000 people were hospitalized, and over 61,000 people were killed by the virus, says Dr. Patrick J. Kenney, DO, FACOI, who is double-board certified in Internal Medicine and Infectious Disease. Flu season happens once a year, and we may be affected by different strains of the influenza virus from year to year.
Although many people are infected each year, the flu mortality rate is relatively low. On average, over the past ten years, influenza has killed 0.1% of people infected (Knight, 2020). Currently, the CDC is estimating that 410,000–740,000 people have been hospitalized with nearly 24,000–62,000 deaths for the 2019–2020 flu season (2019-2020 US Flu Season: Preliminary Burden Estimate, 2020).
5 behaviors that may reduce your risk of getting the flu
In some ways, this year is different because of the new coronavirus (more on that below). But reducing your risk of catching a virus, whether its the novel coronavirus or influenza, is largely universal. Here’s how to cut your risk of catching the flu this year:
Wash your hands
Following proper hand hygiene is one of the best things you can do to lower your risk of catching influenza. That means washing your hands with soap and warm water for a full 20 seconds—or the time it takes to hum “Happy Birthday” from start to finish twice—after going to the bathroom, after coughing or sneezing, before eating, and before touching your mouth, nose, or eyes. Although handwashing is your best option, Kenney says hand sanitizer can work, too, as long as it has more than 60% alcohol concentration. But it really should only be used when soap and water are not available.
Avoid large crowds
Influenza is transmitted through respiratory droplets. We often talk about passing the flu by being in close contact with someone who is sick, but that’s because it increases your chances of being exposed to these droplets that can hang in the air for up to ten minutes. The more people you’re around, the higher your risk of flu exposure. Remember, the flu goes through a latent phase. During this time, someone can be sick and infect other people without showing any symptoms of the infection.
Get your annual flu shot
Influenza season comes around every year between the end of October and March, and the virus strains causing the seasonal flu change year to year. That means it’s critical to get the flu vaccination each influenza season for protection against the strains currently affecting people (instead of relying on last year’s shot to help this year). A review of 20 studies found that having been vaccinated during the current and previous flu season can support immunity against certain strains of the virus (Ramsay, 2019).
But even if you catch the flu virus, having gotten the vaccine can reduce the severity of your symptoms. Past studies have found that the vaccine reduces the risk of hospitalization in children and death in adults from flu (Studies Show Flu Vaccine Reduces Risk of Hospitalization in Children and Death in Adults, 2019). Kenney says the prime time to get the vaccine is in October or November since the vaccine can take a couple of weeks for it to become effective. But getting the vaccine later in flu season is still more helpful than skipping it altogether. Be sure to tell your healthcare provider if you have an egg allergy or have had an allergic reaction to the flu shot in the past. People with egg allergies are generally still able to get the flu vaccination, but need to do so in a medical environment where they can be monitored by professionals (Flu Vaccine and People with Egg Allergies, 2019).
Maintain a strong body/immune system
Many factors that contribute to a strong immune system and help with flu prevention are lifestyle factors. A lot of this comes down to habits that support overall good health while also bolstering immune response, like getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and eating a nutrient-dense diet that provides adequate calories. There are specific vitamins and minerals that support a strong immune system, and drinking less alcohol can also help.
Not only is quitting smoking always a good idea for your overall health, but it may also reduce your risk of catching the flu in as little as a couple of weeks. “Your body will start to produce more cilia within a few weeks of quitting smoking,” Kenney explains, adding that “these cilia are responsible for allowing us to cough out phlegm which would otherwise be caught in the deeper lung spaces predisposing a patient to pneumonia and worse clinical outcomes.”
But it could also help you fight off the initial infection. A small study found that within one month of quitting smoking, participants’ levels of natural killer (NK) cells, a type of immune cell that helps fight off infection, increased. Participants who continued to smoke did not show the same increase (Meliska, 1995).
How to stay healthy if someone else in your house is sick
“Keeping a safe distance from visibly sick people” is an easy way to reduce your chance of infection, Kenney points out. But this gets harder when someone in your own house is sick. Proper protocol when you start noticing symptoms in someone else is complicated during the 2019–2020 season due to the new coronavirus, the symptoms of which can closely mimic those of other respiratory illnesses such as the flu. This year, call your healthcare provider for instructions. A flu test can diagnose influenza, and antivirals such as Tamiflu administered within the first 48 hours of the onset of symptoms can shorten the duration of the flu. But your healthcare provider may suggest the sick person isolates themself at home because it’s difficult to tell influenza from COVID-19.
While the infected person is in isolation, you can take other measurements to lower your chance of catching the flu. Disinfect surfaces with a 70% ethanol (alcohol) cleanser, which can be purchased commercially. Bleach or sodium hypochlorite solutions can also be used. All of these are effective at inactivating (or killing) flu viruses that are living on surfaces made of glass, metal, and plastic. Focus on high-touch surfaces such as doorknobs and door handles, keyboards, and electronic devices with the disinfectant. Encourage them to practice proper etiquette for sneezes and coughs (Coughing & Sneezing, 2016). If you need to be in the room with them, a proper mask (an N95 respirator) can reduce your risk of catching it as long as you dispose of it correctly.
How to prevent spreading the flu if you already have it
If you feel sick, stay home from work or school. Since the 2019–2020 influenza season is complicated by the risk of coronavirus, reach out to healthcare professions through any digital screening services offered before going into the doctor’s office. COVID-19 symptoms are similar to flu symptoms, such as cough, fever, and shortness of breath. In some cases, COVID-19 can even cause body aches, stuffy nose, runny nose, sore throat, or diarrhea. Some areas are offering digital screenings to reduce possible transmission.
Reach out to a healthcare professional as soon as you start experiencing symptoms. If you do have influenza, antiviral drugs can help shorten the duration of the flu as long as they’re administered within 48 hours. You can also self-treat with supportive care at home, such as taking acetaminophen for fever and drinking plenty of fluids. Reduce contact as much as you can with other people living in your house or apartment.
If you live at home with your family, you can also encourage family members to follow proper hand hygiene and wipe down surfaces that you would have come into contact with before your symptoms developed.