With the more than 74,560 lab-confirmed flu cases in the U.S., according to data collected by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and perfectly healthy adults dying from flu complications days after their symptoms begin, this flu season seems particularly scary — even though this year isn’t statistically worse than previous ones.
That’s because the dominant flu virus circulating this season — the H3N2 strain — can cause particularly acute symptoms, which can include fever and joint aches, a runny nose, a sore throat, and coughing, according to the World Health Organization. It can be transmitted even to people who have received a vaccination, according to Dr. Amesh Adalja, MD, an infectious disease physician, spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of America, and senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University for Health Security.
In the worst cases, the flu can cause pneumonia or a secondary bacterial infection that can be fatal, particularly among those at high risk of flu-related complications — for example, people who are pregnant, have asthma, or suffer from other chronic conditions.
Even in the best case scenarios, it sucks to get the flu. Here are the best ways to avoid contracting it, according to Dr. Adalja:
1. Get. Your. Flu shot.
When you get a flu vaccination, your body releases antibodies that can protect you from the most common virus strains in any given season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“You might still get other strains of the flu despite vaccination, although it’s less likely to be severe, and you’re less likely to develop pneumonia, be put on a ventilator, visit the intensive-care unit, or die from the flu after you’ve been vaccinated,” he says.
Although it’s best to get your shot by the end of October, before flu season peaks between November and March, according to the CDC, it’s not too late to get one now — the virus can continue to spread until May.
2. Stay at least three feet away from anyone who’s coughing or sneezing.
The flu virus is a parasite that hangs around in respiratory secretions that travel through the air in small droplets; when projected by a cough or sneeze, they can fly about three feet before gravity takes over, Dr. Adalja says. A flu patient who’s actively projecting these droplets by coughing or sneezing can contaminate the air you breathe. There’s no practical way to assess whether someone has a benign nose tickle, a cold, or the flu, so it’s best to keep your distance from anyone with suspicious symptoms.
3. Keep your hands away from your face — and far from your mouth and nose.
Simply touching a contaminated surface won’t give you the flu, since the virus doesn’t infect the skin — it has to make it to a mucosal membrane in your mouth or nose to cause an infection. But you risk getting sick when you touch an infected surface and transfer the virus to your face.
4. Clean communal surfaces at least once a day.
The flu virus can remain viable without a host for about 24 hours, according to Dr. Adalja. “In general, all household surfaces are going to be contaminated with the flu virus if you’re living with someone who has the flu,” he says, adding that about 25 percent of people who become infected experience no symptoms but can still be contagious. It’s why you should wipe down commonly-touched surfaces — think phone chargers, fridge handles, and light switches — at least once a day using any standard household cleaner, regardless of whether anyone in your household is sick. Before you drop a paycheck on cleaning supplies, remember that “going above and beyond to clean surfaces still isn’t an iron-clad way to avoid the flu, because there are so many opportunities for the virus to spread directly between humans in a shared environment,” Dr. Adalja says.
5. Wash your hands after touching any communal surfaces.
Touch a light switch? Communal keyboard? Water cooler? Whether you’re in a public place or in your home, it’s smart to wash your hands after handling any commonly-touched surfaces using soap and water afterward. Lather up for at least 20 seconds, then rinse under water, and air dry or pat dry with a clean towel, as per the CDC’s best practices. In the absence of a sink, a hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol is your next best bet.
6. Wear surgical gloves when caring for someone who’s sick.
In clinical environments, doctors and nurses wear disposable surgical gloves and masks to avoid contact with contaminated secretions and surfaces. If you’re not prepared to suit up at home, frequent hand-washing is your next best bet when you’re around anyone with the flu.
7. Encourage others to trash their own tissues.
This way, you can avoid direct contact with a sick person’s respiratory secretions, which can carry the flu virus, according to Dr. Adalja.
8. Keep your lips off infected partners.
The flu virus is contagious beginning the day before you experience your first symptom, any time a fever is present, and up to a week after the last symptom subsides. It’s carried in saliva, so kissing a flu carrier’s mouth or face is risky during this time.
9. Give sick sleeping partners their own pillow, and have them sleep on their own side.
Like other communal surfaces, blankets and pillows, particularly in shared beds, can host the flu virus for about 24 hours. Although it’s best to avoid sharing a bed with an infected partner — particularly when he or she is coughing or sneezing — you can avoid infection by keeping to yourself once in bed, and changing the linens if your partner steals your pillow. In the same vein, if flu-infected roommates take up residence on the couch, have them use their own pillows and blankets, or avoid snuggling up in the same spot for 24 hours.
10. Keep the windows closed.
Although cracking a window next to your sneezing office neighbor might give you peace of mind — since theoretically, it would help circulate out infected air — chances are it won’t do much to protect you. “Unless someone literally sticks their head out the window or moves out to the fire escape, opening the window won’t have any measurable benefits once the flu virus is in the air,” Dr. Adalja says. FWIW, the flu virus’s outer coating hardens in cold, which helps it remain viable while passing between people, according to researchers of a 2008 study published in Nature Chemical Biology.
11. Store your toothbrush out of sight.
Otherwise, a communal toothbrush holder contaminated by an infected person’s toothbrush could transfer germs to your toothbrush, or an infected roommate’s rogue sneeze can contaminate your bristles with the flu virus, which can be transferred to your mouth, Dr. Adalja says.
12. Avoid sharing food with infected people.
Although food doesn’t play a major role in spreading influenza, eating contaminated food — i.e., by sharing a plate or eating utensils with someone who’s infected — can potentially make you ill, according to Dr. Adalja.
13. Do your own dishes.
“It’s very difficult to completely avoid flu exposure when you’re living in the same household as someone who is infected,” Dr. Adalja says. But taking on extra chores, like emptying the dishwasher, can keep an infected roommate from planting his or her virus on utensils and glasses that end up in your mouth.
14. Get sufficient sleep.
“Having adequate sleep is a good habit for optimal immune system functioning and to prevent respiratory viruses like the flu,” Dr. Adalja says. The average adult should clock between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
15. Don’t bother taking Cold-Eeze, immunity-boosting supplements, or prophylactic Tamiflu.
Dr. Adalja says the zinc in cold-shortening candy like Cold-Eeze is only clinically proven to shorten the length of a cold, not the flu. In terms of supplements, the average American diet already provides sufficient nutrients to support healthy immune system functioning, so consuming more won’t help. And while Tamiflu, the anti-viral drug prescribed to flu patients within the first 48 hours of sickness to expedite recovery and make the virus less contagious, is sometimes prescribed in small doses prevent the flu, it can ultimately make you resistant so it doesn’t work as well the next time you really need it.
Yes, the flu can make you sick, but guess what? Stress can, too: People who report psychological stress are less likely to develop protective antibodies in response to the flu vaccine, according to a 2009 review of 13 existing studies, which was published in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. “It’s important not to become completely obsessed and compulsive,” Dr. Adalja says. “During a flu season like this, when the virus is spreading among humans in every type of environment and community, you’re going to be exposed to it — even if you live in an overly sterile environment.”
~The Bottom Line~
“Even the perfect environment won’t be a sterile bomb shelter against flu,” says Dr. Adalja, who suggests seeing a doctor if you develop any flu symptoms and are considered at high risk for complications, or severe flu symptoms such as an unrelenting fever or shortness of breath. “The biggest thing is to get the flu vaccine,” he says. “Everything else is extra.”