With flu season upon us again—arriving in the midst of a still-surging coronavirus pandemic—a handful of experts offer their tips for avoiding influenza.
According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics, influenza has resulted in between 9 million and 45 million illnesses annually since 2010.
In that same timeframe, the flu has led to somewhere between 140,000 and 810,000 hospitalizations each year, and between 12,000 and 61,000 annual deaths, the CDC estimates.
Anxiety over the coronavirus have rightfully been front and center throughout 2020. But now, as we enter flu season—with flu activity typically peaking between December and February—influenza becomes a concern again. With this in mind, we asked some experts to provide their top flu prevention tips for this season.
Get sufficient sleep
A proper night’s rest is one way to boost immune health and help fight off the flu, says Brian Cornblatt, PhD, medical director at Nutramax Laboratories and Avmacol.
“[Individuals should ideally get] at least seven hours per night,” says Cornblatt. “Sleep is vital for the production of key cytokines that help regulate our immune system as well as important components of our adaptive immunity involved with antibody production.”
Wash your hands
Handwashing is a small but significant step toward living healthier, says Jay Woody, MD, FACEP, chief medical officer at Intuitive Health, and founder of Legacy ER & Urgent Care.
“Regularly washing your hands helps prevent bad bacteria and viruses from entering your body and causing you to get sick,” says Woody, adding that frequent handwashing also helps prevent the flu and other diseases.
“Even if the process doesn’t kill germs, it gets them off your hands. And considering how many surfaces and body parts we touch during the day, interrupting the path of viruses and bacteria can help keep your family safe,” he adds.
“Encourage young children to wash their hands often by singing songs together. Not only will this make them look forward to washing their hands, but the length of the song will also ensure they don’t speed through it.”
Ensure enough exercise
“A healthy mix of cardiac and strength-based exercise supports all systems of our body,” says Cornblatt, stressing the importance of avoiding overdoing it, such as too much high-intensity focused workouts, which can actually increase inflammation and negative impact the immune system.
“The key word is balance,” he says, “with a focus on low-impact days in between workouts, including stretching and proper recovery.”
Maintain a balanced diet
Proper eating habits go hand-in-hand with exercise as a part of a healthy regimen.
“This doesn’t mean that you have to cut out carbohydrates or condemn sugars, but it does mean you should be conscious about what you eat, as it does affect your overall health,” says Woody. “Eating a balanced diet will help you maintain a healthy body weight and aid in reducing illnesses. The USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans offers a few guidelines on how to maintain a healthy diet.”
Cornblatt also suggests minimizing processed foods.
“Nothing is better for our health than fruits, vegetables, grass-fed and animal-derived meats, wild-caught fish and home-cooked meals [that minimize] the use of processed ingredients,” he says. “All too often, there are hormones, FD&C dyes, saturated fats, salt and sugar (both natural and artificial) in processed ingredients and foods. These can all drive inflammation at the cellular level, causing our immune systems to suffer.”
Wear your mask
Of course, masks have become, or should become, a standard part of anyone’s wardrobe in the midst of COVID-19.
Any covering that completely conceals the mouth and nose is effective, says Woody.
“Covering both the mouth and the nose prevents the aerosolization of droplets that could contain coronavirus of flu that could be spread to others,” he says. “Aerosolization is the process where one’s respiratory droplets are converted into small partials, small enough to be carried in the air, is dispersed and transmitted through the air. Any covering prevents this, whether it is a cloth or other type of covering.”
Don’t overdo it
Benjamin Barlow, MD, chief medical officer at American Family Care, a national healthcare network with more than 220 clinics and 600 in-network physicians, cautions patients against trying to “do it all,” which can worsen one’s own health and spread the flu to others.
“If you are starting to feel sick, don’t try to be a superhero,” says Barlow. “No one wants to be exposed to your germs. Stay home and don’t even run errands, like [going] to the drugstore to get medicine. When you have a fever, you should always stay home at least 24 hours after your fever is gone.”
Adhere to medications
Contracting the flu can exacerbate underlying conditions such as asthma or chronic heart disease, says Thomas So, PharmD, Manager, Meducation Group at First Databank.
For example, people with asthma may experience asthma attacks, he says, adding that the flu can increase risk of heart attack and stroke in susceptible patients, such as those with chronic heart disease.
“Another chronic condition, diabetes, has risks associated with the flu. People with diabetes may have issues with their immune system, so they may be less able to fight infections such as the flu. People who have diabetes also may have a hard time controlling blood sugar levels when they have the flu,” says So.
“For all of these reasons, it’s important for people with these types of chronic conditions to maintain optimal medication adherence. The pharmacist/patient relationship can play an important role in medication adherence, since the pharmacist can intervene when they notice a change in refill patterns that may indicate a patient is not adherent to their medication regimen.”
Play it safe at the pump
When you’re feeling well enough to venture out on errands, such as fueling up your car, use caution, says Barlow.
“Drivers must get gas for their vehicles no matter what, sick or not,” he says. “Protect yourself at the pump [and] grab a paper towel before picking up the gas nozzle. You can also use the paper towel as a barrier when punching in your debit or credit card information.”
Avoid sharing pens
Speaking of credit cards, Barlow recommends avoiding using public pens to sign something in any situation.
“Whether at work or signing a credit card receipt at a store, never pick up a public pen, because they’re covered with other people’s germs,” he says. “Keep a pen handy for any situation that could pop up.”
Stay current on vaccinations
No vaccination for the coronavirus exists just yet, but Woody reiterates the importance of flu shots.
“[Flu shots] are recommended once a flu season for children and adults ages six months and up,” says Woody, noting that the CDC recommends getting a flu shot as soon as the vaccine becomes available— which is usually around October—to ensure “as many people as possible are protected early in the season.”
Use good sense at holiday gatherings
Flu season overlaps with the holiday season, and family gatherings and other get-togethers can be a breeding ground for infection spread, says Luke Smith, DNP, RN, client operations analyst at Central Logic.
“Flu prevention has never been such a concern as it is for the 2020-2021 flu season,” says Smith, who is also director of the Arizona Surge Line, a collaboration between the Arizona Department of Health Services and the state of Arizona’s health system to balance patients and healthcare resources.
“The phenomenon of influenza and COVID-19 converging has been coined the ‘twindemic,’ he says, adding that a second coronavirus surge figures to put even more strain on an already taxed healthcare system.
Prevention of both illnesses comes down to rudimentary mitigation strategies, he says, urging mask donning, frequent hand-washing, avoiding rubbing your face and social distancing as much as possible at gatherings.
“Don’t let your guard down at these events. While we love our families and friends, they may be the perfect carrier for infection. Or we may be. We need to take steps to protect each other,” says Smith.
“These key strategies will go a long way in keeping yourself and your loved ones safe throughout the holiday season, while also helping to prevent any unnecessary utilization of our healthcare system.”
Curtail the tension
The holiday season brings its own set of stressors each year, and the harmful effects of mental stress on physical health are well-documented.
Studies from as far back as the early 1980s show the links between higher stress and lower immunity, as the immune system’s ability to fight off infections becomes compromised.
Woody urges individuals to carve out time for whatever type of hobbies or leisure activities help you fend off stress and, subsequently, fend off the flu.
“Whether you read a book, take a trip, socialize with friends or do some yoga, reducing stress is vital,” he says. “Immune systems come under attack more easily when your body is stressed, making it much easier for you to get sick.”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020. Accessed Nov. 9, 2020. [https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/burden/index.html]
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020. Accessed Nov. 9, 2020. [https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/season/flu-season.htm#:~:text=In%20the%20United%20States%2C%20flu%20season%20occurs%20in%20the%20fall,last%20as%20late%20as%20May.]
- United States Department of Agriculture, 2020. Accessed Nov. 10, 2020. [https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/]
- Health.com, 2020. Accessed Nov. 11, 2020. [https://www.health.com/condition/infectious-diseases/coronavirus/twindemic]
- American Psychological Association, 2020. Accessed Nov. 11, 2020. [https://www.apa.org/research/action/immune]
Know the Warning Signs
As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note, influenza can cause mild to severe illness, and can sometimes be fatal. The organization also points out that the flu differs from a cold, and provides a list of symptoms that those with the flu often experience, including:
- Fever or feeling feverish/chills
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Muscle or body aches
- Vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults
The CDC also provides emergency warning signs associated with the flu, and urges individuals experiencing such symptoms to obtain medical care immediately. These symptoms include:
- Fast breathing or trouble breathing
- Bluish lips or face
- Ribs pulling in with each breath
- Chest pain
- Severe muscle pain (child refuses to walk)
- Dehydration (no urine for 8 hours, dry mouth, no tears when crying)
- Not alert or interacting when awake
- Fever above 104°F
- In children less than 12 weeks, any fever
- Fever or cough that improve but then return or worsen
- Worsening of chronic medical conditions
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Persistent pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
- Persistent dizziness, confusion, inability to arouse
- Not urinating
- Severe muscle pain
- Severe weakness or unsteadiness
- Fever or cough that improve but then return or worsen
- Worsening of chronic medical conditions
These lists are not all-inclusive, and the CDC urges patients to consult their medical providers for any other symptoms that are severe or concerning.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020. Accessed Nov. 9, 2020. [https://www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/symptoms.htm]