During flu season, if people start coughing and sneezing around you, it might be wise to run. Those viruses are equal-opportunity invaders, and any nearby host will do.
However, as you know, it’s not possible to barricade yourself within a germ-free fortress when the cold and flu season comes around. Although it may seem like getting sick is inevitable every winter, there are several ways you can strengthen your defenses and minimize the chances of coming down with an illness.
Your First Lines of Defense
1. Refrain From Unhealthy Habits
Your immune system is there to protect you. But like any defense system, it’s only as strong as you make it. By eating well, exercising, and limiting your alcohol intake, you can give your immune system a boost. If you feel like going the extra mile to ward things off, consider taking vitamin supplements such as C and E, and make sure you get plenty of rest – you’re more likely to succumb to an illness if you’re rundown, stressed, or engaging in unhealthy habits.
2. Get a Flu Shot
Flu shots may not be 100% effective, but they still serve as one of your first lines of defense. Flu vaccines work by building up antibodies against the three influenza viruses that are likely to be most prevalent during flu season. In general, the vaccine works best in older children and in young, healthy adults, but even people not in those groups can attain some measure of protection. The CDC recommends that anyone over six months of age get vaccinated.
Although fall is the best time to get a flu shot, getting vaccinated later in the season can still afford protection, as flu shots typically take only two weeks to become effective. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the flu season generally peaks in January or February, but the entire season typically runs from October to May.
3. Practice Good Hygiene
You’ve heard it a million times, but washing your hands frequently is truly one of the easiest and most effective ways to prevent illness. Wash with soap in hot running water – the longer you wash, the more germs you remove from your skin. While most people wash their hands for approximately five seconds, the CDC recommends washing for 20 seconds, or about the time needed to hum “Happy Birthday” twice.
It goes without saying, but the farther away you are from people who are coughing and sneezing, the better off you’ll be. The flu can be spread from person to person from up to six feet away.
Also, avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth, as those are the prime points for germs and viruses to enter your system. If you can, keep small vials of hand sanitizer or wipes with you and disinfect your hands frequently, especially after touching common surfaces. Alcohol-based hand sanitizer can kill up to 99% of germs.
4. Wipe Down Surfaces
We all know that schools are notorious germ factories, but offices are bad too. If you work in an office, every doorknob, microwave door, refrigerator handle, or table surface has likely been touched by other hands, and some of them are going to have viruses. According to the Mayo Clinic, a cold or flu virus can live on a surface for up to 48 hours. Viruses generally remain active longer on hard surfaces – such as stainless steel and counter tops – than on soft surfaces like fabric.
Regularly wipe down surfaces you touch both at work and in your home with an alcohol wipe (containing at least 60% alcohol), especially common surfaces that are touched often. Also, don’t forget to wipe down your own desk. Just because you’re not sick doesn’t mean there aren’t “bugs” lurking at a keyboard near you. The typical computer workstation can have up to 400 times more bacteria than a toilet seat, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. If you have to eat while you work, wash your hands beforehand and use alcohol wipes to sterilize your work station regularly.
If You Do Feel Sick
Prevention only goes so far. If you’ve done all you can and you still come down with a cold or flu, make sure you act quickly.
1. Contact Your Doctor
If you feel like you’re coming down with the flu, try to visit your doctor within 48 hours. Antiviral drugs like Tamiflu and Relenza, if administered within two days of onset, can be effective in reducing the severity and duration of the flu. These drugs can also prevent serious complications from occurring, such as sinus infections, ear infections, bronchitis, and pneumonia. It is especially important that those most at risk for developing complications be treated.
2. Stock Up on Remedies
If you feel like you’re coming down with a cold, products such as Cold-EEZE that contain zinc gluconate may help you combat the sickness if taken as soon as you first feel symptoms. However, they are not likely to help you prevent a flu. Pain relievers and decongestants may provide some relief from both cold and flu symptoms, but won’t prevent the virus from taking hold.
3. Limit Your Contact With Others
When you’re sick, limit contact with others, and stay home from work. You are contagious for approximately the first three days you exhibit cold symptoms. With the flu, you are contagious a day before you show symptoms, and up to five to seven days after symptoms appear.
Influenza is often confused with what is commonly known as the “stomach flu.” Influenza is a respiratory illness that may be accompanied by vomiting and diarrhea, but usually is not. In contrast, the stomach flu is a gastrointestinal illness that often includes nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, but has no upper respiratory component. It’s important when calling a doctor’s office to be clear about your symptoms, rather than offering a self-diagnosis that may be misnamed.
What works best for you to ward off illness?