As the leaves begin to change and the weather gets cooler, flu season is right around the corner. The influenza virus causes seasonal epidemics almost every winter in the United States, peaking between December and February. On average, influenza leads to tens of thousands of hospitalizations and thousands of deaths each flu season.
Getting vaccinated is the best way to protect yourself against the dangers of influenza. By understanding how the flu spreads, who is most vulnerable, and what preventative measures you can take, you can keep yourself healthy this flu season.
How Influenza Spreads?
Influenza spreads easily from person to person through respiratory droplets. When an infected individual coughs, sneezes, or talks, they expel tiny droplets that contain the influenza virus. If these droplets land in your nose, eyes, or mouth or are inhaled, you may contact the flu. The influenza virus can also spread by touching objects contaminated with the virus. If you touch a doorknob, table surface, or keyboard with flu virus on it and then touch your eyes, mouth, or nose, you risk becoming infected.
Preventing Influenza Infection If you want to avoid getting the flu this winter, follow this prevention guidance:
Get Vaccinated Yearly
The most effective way to prevent influenza is to get an annual flu shot. Flu vaccines work by exposing you to noninfectious pieces of the virus, allowing your immune system to create defensive antibodies. Different strains of the influenza virus circulate every year, so it’s important to get vaccinated annually to build immunity against the current strains. The CDC recommends that everyone 6 months and older get a flu vaccine before flu activity picks up in their local community, ideally before the end of October.
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Wash Hands Frequently
Practicing good hand hygiene minimizes your chances of getting or spreading the flu. Wash hands often with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds, especially after coughing or sneezing. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers containing at least 60% alcohol can also effectively kill the flu virus when soap and water are unavailable. Avoid touching eyes, mouth, and nose to prevent transmission from contaminated hands. Teach children the proper way to wash hands to stop flu germs from spreading at schools.
Use Proper Cough and Sneeze Etiquette
Cover all coughs and sneezes to block infectious respiratory droplets from transmitting through the air. Cough or sneeze into a tissue and discard it right away before properly washing your hands. If tissues aren’t available, cough into your elbow rather than your hands to reduce spreading germs. Whenever possible, stand at least six feet away from people exhibiting flu symptoms to avoid close contact with the airborne virus.
Viruses can live on doorknobs, light switches, phones, remote controls, and other household objects for up to 48 hours. Disinfect these surfaces frequently to kill the lingering flu virus, especially if someone in your home has the flu. Choose EPA-approved disinfectants and sanitizers to eliminate illness-causing germs. Bleach or alcohol solutions containing at least 70% alcohol also work.
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Avoid Touching Face
As difficult as it seems, stop touching your eyes, nose, and mouth throughout the day to block the virus from entering through mucus membranes. The flu virus takes between one to four days to incubate before making you sick. Avoiding face touching prevents viral particles from invading your respiratory system.
Limit Contact With Sick People
The best way to avoid getting the flu is to stay away from already infected people showing symptoms. Avoid close interaction with coworkers, family, or friends exhibiting signs of influenza-like fever, chills, body aches, headaches, sore throat, and fatigue. Wait to visit friends or relatives recovering from influenza for at least 24 hours after their fever dissipates. Monitor your health after necessary exposure to ill people and call your doctor if you show concerning symptoms.
Strengthen Your Immune System
Building up your general immunity makes your body better prepared to resist and fight off influenza infection. Get adequate sleep, eat a balanced diet full of vegetables and whole grains, exercise regularly, manage stress levels, stay hydrated, and consider taking vitamins C, D, and zinc supplements. Supporting overall health fortifies your body’s defenses against viruses like the flu.
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Recognizing Influenza Symptoms
Identifying flu symptoms quickly leads to faster treatment and recovery. Typical influenza signs include:
- High fever over 101 degrees Fahrenheit
- Chills and body sweats
- Headache, body and muscle aches
- Fatigue and weakness
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Dry, persistent cough
- Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea (more common in children)
The severity and duration of influenza symptoms depend on age, overall health status, and whether or not an individual received a flu vaccination. Symptoms can last between two and fourteen days but most people improve within a week.
Seek emergency care immediately if you or a child exhibit any of these emergency warning signs:
- Rapid breathing or struggle breathing
- Bluish skin colors
- Ribs pulling in with each breath
- Chest pain
- Severe muscle pain
- Dehydration signs like dizziness or lack of urination
- Fever above 104 F
- Confusion or disorientation
Staying Healthy Through Flu Season While influenza spreads easily during the fall and winter months, you have the power to protect yourself and your loved ones against infection. Follow the flu prevention guidance outlined above to minimize health risks this season. Getting vaccinated, washing hands properly, disinfecting household objects, avoiding contact with sick individuals, and supporting your body’s immune defenses all help guard against the dangers of influenza.