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14 Things You Should Know For Flu Season

Winter is coming, and so is the flu. Here's your game plan to stay healthy this flu season (or, barring that, how to get well soon).

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The CDC tracks the spread of the flu across the country every year. Here is what the flu was doing during the week ending November 14, 2014.

The CDC estimates that between 5 and 20% of the population gets sick with the flu every flu season, nearly 200,000 people are hospitalized for it, and thousands (often tens of thousands) die.

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The people most at risk of serious complications and death from the flu are old (65+), young (under 5), pregnant women, and people with underlying chronic health conditions (like asthma, heart disease, and diabetes, to name a few).

1. Get this year's flu vaccine.

Beatrice the Biologist / Via beatricebiologist.com

The CDC recommends that almost everyone older than 6 months should get the flu shot, unless you have allergies to the ingredients. See more details about who should get what type of vaccination here.

A few words about the vaccine:

1. It won't be 100% effective at protecting you against the flu, but numerous studies show that the vaccine is associated with a lower rate of hospitalization from the flu in children and in adults. It's better than nothing!

2. It will NOT make you sick with the flu. I repeat: The flu vaccine will not give you the flu. Read all about that here.

Actual discussion: Parent "I want #Ebola vaccine for my child" Doc "There isn't one, but we have #flushot" Parent "We don't believe in that"

Dr. Dave Stukus@AllergyKidsDocFollow

Actual discussion:
Parent "I want #Ebola vaccine for my child"
Doc "There isn't one, but we have #flushot"
Parent "We don't believe in that"

11:05 AM - 04 Nov 14ReplyRetweetFavorite

3. There are different ways to get vaccinated — a shot, and a nasal spray. See the CDC's list of who should and should not get the nasal spray here.

4. The flu vaccine takes about two weeks before it works. If you get vaccinated in the middle of a flu outbreak, it's possible that you'll contract the flu before your body can develop antibodies to the virus, meaning you could get sick in spite of getting the vaccine.

Many thanks to Beatrice the Biologist for giving BuzzFeed Life permission to use her flu vaccine comic!

2. Wash your hands repeatedly throughout the day.

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"The two most important things you can do for yourself to avoid the flu is to get an annual influenza vaccine, and the second is to have good hand hygiene," Fran Wallach, M.D., associate professor, Medicine, Infectious Diseases, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and hospital epidemiologist at The Mount Sinai Hospital, told BuzzFeed Life. If washing your hands isn't an option, the CDC recommends using hand sanitizer with a 60-95% alcohol concentration.

3. Lather for 20 seconds. Literally count to 20 if you need to.

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Here's how to wash your hands in a way that'll actually clear the germs, per Kelly Reynolds, Ph.D., director of the Environment, Exposure Science and Risk Assessment Center at the University of Arizona's College of Public Health:

1. Use soap and warm water to scrub them to a lather for 20 seconds.

2. Make sure to get between your fingers, under your nails, and even up a few inches on and around your wrist, past your watch line.

3. Rinse them off after 20 seconds, and use an air dryer to blow them dry, or paper towels. Don't use a shared hand-towel to dry them (read all about why here).

4. If you use hand sanitizer, do it correctly.

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"Put enough on your hands to cover all the surfaces of your hands for about 15 to 20 seconds," Jim Arbogast, Ph.D., Hygiene Sciences and Public Health Advancements, Vice President at GOJO Industries, the inventors of Purell, told BuzzFeed Life. It may seem excessive, but Arbogast says that's how long it'll take for the ingredients in your hand sanitizer to effectively kill enough germs. Try a dime- to nickel-sized amount, or however much you need to keep it from drying up too early.

"Start with your fingertips, because those are the point of most common contact," Arbogast says. "Then get it quickly rubbed across the entire surface of your hands."

5. Quit touching your face.

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One way the flu spreads is when you touch an infected surface, and then touch your dirty hands to your eyes, nose, or mouth. "It's been reported that people touch their face anywhere from 15 to 50 times in an hour," Arbogast says.

Some ways to minimize face-touching: Keep a box of tissues by your desk, and use them whenever you have an itch. If you have long hair, keep it pulled back so that you're not as tempted to mess with it (and, say, push it out of your eyes). And make a pact with a friend that you'll call each other out whenever the other one touches their face.

6. Eat your fruits and veggies.

Flickr: Peter Roome / Creative Commons / Via Flickr: roome

"The main foods that build up your immune system are green cruciferous vegetables, berries, mushrooms, and onions," Joel Fuhrman, M.D., a board-certified family physician and author of Super Immunity (Harper One, 2012), told BuzzFeed Life. Zinc and Vitamin D are also important in protecting your immune system. If you're deficient in either one, then taking supplements can help, Fuhrman says.

The key here is to make sure that you're eating a nutritious diet before you get sick, because it can take months to build up your immunity, Fuhrman says. That said, even a few weeks of eating well can make a (small) difference... so hit up the produce aisle ASAP.

Tip for parents: Give your kids frozen berries to munch on, or a smoothie made with berries and kale (and maybe some cocoa for taste). "The polyphenols and flavonoids in berries have effects to increase the defenses against viruses," Fuhrman says.

7. Try to limit your exposure to sick people.

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If your co-workers come to work sick, encourage them to go home. As BuzzFeed Life previously reported, a virus can spread around an office — and be found on about 50% of all surfaces — in as little as four hours.

If you can't avoid sick people (because you're a doctor or parent or spouse or someone who actually needs to take care of them, for instance), then make sure to clean your hands before and after interacting with them, Arbogast says.

"If you're coming into contact with someone who's ill, you want your hands to be clean because their immune system is already weakened and you don't want to risk exposing them to anything else," he says. And you want to wash your hands after caring for a sick person to lower your risk of getting sick yourself.

8. Stop smoking, and avoid secondhand smoke.

Flickr: Marcel Rainer / Creative Commons / Via Flickr: itslegitx

Studies show that smokers are way more likely to contract the flu than nonsmokers, and that being around secondhand smoke also increases your risk. Need help? Visit smokefree.gov for resources and advice on how to kick the habit for good.

9. Get plenty of sleep.

Getty Images/iStockphoto Lulamej

Not getting enough sleep can weaken your immune system, research shows, which makes you more susceptible to getting sick. Aim to get between 7 and 8 hours of sleep every night. If you need help, check out these 14 scientific hacks to get a better night's sleep. And sweet dreams!

10. Get regular moderate exercise.

Research shows that people who regularly work out with moderate intensity have stronger immune systems than people who are sedentary (as in sitting on their butts all day).

Some examples of moderate-intensity exercise, according to the CDC and the American College of Sports Medicine:

-Walking at a brisk pace (from 3 to 4.5 miles per hour)

-Hiking

-Biking 5 to 9 miles per hour without many hills

-Yoga

-Using the stair-climber at the gym at a light to moderate pace

-Weight training using free weights (that doesn't include circuit weight training, which is SUPER intense)

-Walking, running, or climbing with children

-Washing your car

And so much more.

11. Feeling sick? Figure out if you have the flu, or if it's just a cold.

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Colds and the flu have similar symptoms: They can both involve congestion, coughing, sneezing, and stuffy nose, Wallach says. The big differences: With the flu, you'll have a high fever and all-over body aches. Not so much with a cold. And the flu comes on much faster than a cold typically does: "With the flu, you could feel fine at noon and by 2 p.m. you're really sick," she says. "Colds come on a lot more gradually."

Random aside: Lots of people confuse the flu with the "stomach flu"... which is not actually a flu at all. Wallach says that children may experience diarrhea and vomiting with influenza, but that adults generally do not. If you are an adult and are barfing or otherwise having gastro distress, you're probably looking at a different illness that is neither cold nor flu.

12. If you've got the flu, stay home from work and away from people.

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"Stay at home and rest, and avoid close contact with people," Wallach says. You can be contagious a day before you even start showing symptoms, so by the time you're visibly ill you're absolutely a risk to your co-workers. Do everyone a favor and stay away.

Along those lines — cover your mouth and nose when you cough and sneeze to keep from infecting people around you. Your germy coughs and sneezes can travel up to six feet in diameter around you, Wallach says. She suggests using a tissue or your sleeve. And if you use your hand to cough, wash it right after to avoid contaminating everything you touch.

13. Know what meds can help you (and realize that most probably can't).

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ANTIVIRALS:

Prescription antiviral flu meds, like Tamiflu, can shorten the length of your flu by about a day. "But you need to take it within the first day of symptoms for it to work," Wallach says. Most people figure out they have the flu too late. That said, if you know that you've been exposed to the flu (say, because your kid is sick with it), you can go to your doc for a scrip as soon as you start feeling symptoms.

ANTIBIOTICS:

The flu is a virus, which means that antibiotics will have no effect on it at all. None. Zip.

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EVERYTHING ELSE:

Other than an antiviral, no other medicine can make the flu end sooner. And both Fuhrman and Wallach say that your standard OTC cold and flu meds won't be super effective at making you feel better, either.

Your best bet is stay home, get rest, keep hydrated (especially important if you've been sweating a ton from your fever and have been losing fluids), and maybe take Tylenol to help with your aches and pains and reduce your fever a bit if you want, Wallach says.

The flu can last up to a week (assuming it doesn't cause a secondary illness, like pneumonia). You might want to look into a Netflix subscription to keep you company while you wallow.

14. Know when you need to seek medical care.

Signs you should go to the doctor ASAP: If you're having trouble breathing, or if your fever is high and sustained (rather than fluctuating between high and low), according to Fuhrman. And anyone considered high-risk (over 65, under 5, pregnant women, or people with chronic conditions) should be in touch with their doctors if they have any concerns.

Whew!

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Wishing you and yours a healthy flu season.

Love,

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