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If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
Influenza (the virus that causes the flu) is a common viral infection in the United States, with “flu season” typically running from October through March. Infection rates tend to peak in February. In the 2019–2020 flu season, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that nearly 38 million people were infected, 400,000 people were hospitalized, and over 22,000 people were killed by the virus (CDC, 2021).
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). Flu season usually happens once a year, and each year, different strains of the virus can dominate. That’s the reason that we need to get vaccinated again every year.
Keep reading to learn about five critical steps you can take to protect yourself against the flu.
1. 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 and after touching your mouth, nose, or eyes. Although handwashing is your best option, hand sanitizer can work, too, as long as it has more than 60% alcohol concentration. If your hands are visibly soiled, only soap and water are effective.
2. 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, it takes a day or two to develop symptoms of the flu after being infected. During this time, you can infect other people without showing any symptoms of the infection yourself.
3. Get your annual flu shot
Influenza season usually peaks between the end of October through March, and the virus strains causing most of 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). A review of 20 studies found that having been vaccinated during the current and previous flu season will support immunity against certain circulating strains of the virus (Ramsay, 2019).
While the vaccine reduces your chance of catching the flu, it doesn’t prevent it entirely. But even if you do catch the flu, being vaccinated 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 (IDSA, 2019).
The prime time to get the vaccine is before November because the vaccine can take a couple of weeks 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 with medical supervision to ensure that there are no complications (CDC, 2019).
Is it a cold or is it COVID? Or the flu?
4. Maintain a strong body/immune system
Many factors that contribute to a strong immune system and help with flu prevention are lifestyle factors. This comes down to habits that support overall good health while also bolstering the immune response, like getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and eating a nutrient-dense diet that provides adequate calories. Specific vitamins and minerals can support a strong immune system, and drinking less alcohol can also help.
5. Quit smoking
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. It can 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 away from visibly sick people is an easy way to reduce your chance of infection. But this gets harder when someone in your own house is sick. Try to avoid direct contact whenever possible. This may include having the sick person stay in a different room or use the kitchen/bathroom at different times.
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.
People who are sick should practice proper etiquette for sneezing and coughing (CDC, 2020). 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 effective is handwashing at preventing flu transmission?
How to avoid spreading the flu if you already have it
If you feel sick, stay home from work or school. You can get tested for the flu and coronavirus at your local urgent care or your primary healthcare provider’s office. If you do have influenza, a healthcare professional may recommend antiviral drugs to help shorten the duration of the flu. Supportive self-care at home, such as taking acetaminophen for fever and drinking plenty of fluids, can help curb symptoms. Reduce contact as much as you can with other people living in your house or apartment.
If you live with other people, encourage family members to follow proper hand hygiene and wipe down surfaces that you would have come into contact with before your symptoms developed.
- 2019-2020 U.S. Flu Season: Preliminary Burden Estimates. (2020, February 28). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/burden/preliminary-in-season-estimates.htm
- Center for Disease Control (CDC): Coughing & Sneezing. (2020, April 22). Retrieved on Sept. 9, 2021 from https://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/hygiene/etiquette/coughing_sneezing.html
- Flu Vaccine and People with Egg Allergies. (2019, November 25). Retrieved on March 3, 2020 from https://www.cdc.gov/flu/prevent/egg-allergies.htm
- IDSA: Studies Show Flu Vaccine Reduces Risk of Hospitalization in Children and Death in Adults. (2019). Retrieved on Feb. 29, 2020, from https://www.idsociety.org/news—publications-new/articles/2019/studies-show-flu-vaccine-reduces-risk-of-hospitalization-in-children-and-death-in-adults/
- Knight, V. (2020). In An Exchange About Coronavirus, Homeland Security Chief Gets Flu Mortality Rate Wrong. Retrieved from https://khn.org/news/fact-check-coronavirus-homeland-security-chief-flu-mortality-rate/
- Meliska, C. J., Stunkard, M. E., Gilbert, D. G., Jensen, R. A., & Martinko, J. M. (1995). Immune function in cigarette smokers who quit smoking for 31 days. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 95(4), 901–910. doi: 10.1016/s0091-6749(95)70135-4. Retrieved from https://www.jacionline.org/article/S0091-6749(95)70135-4/fulltext
- Ramsay, L. C., Buchan, S. A., Stirling, R. G., Cowling, B. J., Feng, S., Kwong, J. C., & Warshawsky, B. F. (2019). The impact of repeated vaccination on influenza vaccine effectiveness: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Medicine, 17(1). doi: 10.1186/s12916-018-1239-8. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28823248
Yael Cooperman is a physician and works as a Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.