Surviving Flu Season: What You Need to Know
The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. Flu season typically runs from October through May in the United States, with activity peaking between December and February.
Up to 45 million Americans get sick with the flu each year, leading to as many as 810,000 hospitalizations and between 12,000 and 61,000 deaths annually.
The flu can be miserable and in some cases even life-threatening. That’s why it’s so important to take steps to avoid getting sick and to know how to treat the flu if you do come down with it. Read on to learn key strategies for surviving flu season unscathed.
Understand How the Flu Spreads
Influenza spreads easily from person to person through coughing, sneezing, or talking. The viruses can also spread via surfaces like doorknobs, countertops, keyboards, and phones.
When an infected person coughs or sneezes, droplets containing flu viruses can travel up to 6 feet away. If you breathe them in or get them in your nose or mouth, you may get sick.
You can also pick up the viruses by touching a contaminated surface and then touching your face. Flu viruses can survive for quite a while on surfaces - up to 24 hours on hard surfaces like doorknobs and desks, and up to 15 minutes on tissues.
So during flu season, be aware of the risks and take precautions. Try to avoid close contact with obviously sick people and keep your distance when someone is coughing or sneezing.
Also, wash your hands frequently and avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth unless your hands are clean.
Get Your Flu Shot
The single best way to protect yourself against the flu is to get vaccinated every year. The flu shot reduces your risk of getting sick by 40-60%. It also makes illness milder if you do happen to get the flu.
The vaccine contains inactivated flu viruses that prompt your immune system to produce antibodies. It takes about two weeks after vaccination to develop full immunity. The ideal timing is early fall before flu activity picks up.
Flu viruses are constantly changing, so the vaccine is updated annually to target the main strains expected to circulate. Even if the vaccine doesn’t perfectly match these strains, it can still provide some protection.
The shot is recommended for everyone 6 months of age and older. It’s especially important for higher-risk groups like:
- Pregnant women
- Children under 5
- Adults over 65
- People with chronic medical conditions like asthma, diabetes, and heart disease 
Talk to your doctor about the best time to get vaccinated based on your health profile and preferences. Many pharmacies, workplaces, schools, and clinics also offer flu shots.
The vaccine is very safe - soreness at the injection site is the most common side effect. Serious reactions are extremely rare.
Getting vaccinated not only protects you from illness but also prevents you from spreading the flu to more vulnerable people. So you’ll be doing your community service as well!
Practice Good Hygiene Habits
You know the drill - wash your hands frequently, cover coughs and sneezes, and avoid touching your face. But during flu season it pays to be extra vigilant about these basic hygiene habits.
Wash with soap and water for at least 20 seconds - about as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice. If soap and water aren’t available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
Cough or sneeze into a tissue or your elbow rather than your hands. Use your shoulder or sleeve to push buttons, open doors, and perform other tasks rather than touching surfaces with your bare hands.
Clean frequently touched objects like phones, remotes, and keyboards regularly with disinfecting wipes. This will remove any flu viruses that may have settled there. Try not to share items like phones, dishes, and towels with anyone who has the flu. All of these steps help interrupt the transmission routes of the flu.
Boost Your Immunity
A strong immune system helps you fight off infections. You can give yours a boost by:
- Exercising regularly - aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate activity most days
- Managing stress through yoga, meditation, or whatever works for you
- Getting enough sleep - adults need 7-9 hours per night
- Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables high in vitamins C and E
- Staying well hydrated with water and other fluids
- Taking a daily multivitamin to fill any nutritional gaps
- Avoiding smoking, excessive alcohol, and unnecessary antibiotics Basically, supporting overall health helps keep your immunity in top shape to fend off the flu.
Stock Up on Supplies
Be prepared by having flu essentials on hand before sickness strikes. Useful items include:
- Fever reducers like acetaminophen and ibuprofen help ease aches and bring down high temperatures
- Decongestants like pseudoephedrine and phenylephrine to relieve stuffy noses and sinus pressure
- Cough suppressants like dextromethorphan for dry hacking coughs
- Expectorants like guaifenesin to loosen mucus from chest congestion
- Antihistamines like cetirizine or loratadine to reduce sneezing and runny noses
- Electrolyte solutions like sports drinks, soup broth, or Pedialyte to replenish fluids and minerals
- Tissues and disposable face masks to contain germs
- Hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes
- Vapor rubs containing menthol and camphor to ease chest and nasal congestion 
Check product labels for age appropriateness and interactions before use. Having these supplies ready in your medicine cabinet means you won’t have to venture out when you’re sick.
Know When to See a Doctor
For most healthy people, the flu is an unpleasant but ultimately self-limiting illness. With rest and supportive self-care, you can usually ride it out at home. However, contact your doctor if you experience:
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Persistent pain or pressure in your chest or abdomen
- Confusion or sudden dizziness
- Severe vomiting that prevents keeping liquids down
- Flu symptoms that improve but then return with fever and cough
- High fever or symptoms lasting over 5 days 
Seek emergency care for:
- Bluish lips or face, indicating oxygen depletion
- Severe constant dizziness or fainting
- Extreme difficulty breathing
- Signs of shock like excessive sweating, clammy skin, or feeling very weak, dizzy, or lightheaded 
Young children, older adults, pregnant women, and people with chronic medical conditions also warrant extra caution. Don’t hesitate to call your doctor if symptoms seem severe or worrisome.
Stay Home When Sick
When you have the flu, do everyone a favor by not spreading your germs around. Adults should stay home until at least 24 hours after a fever subsides without needing fever-reducing medication. For kids, the minimum is 24 hours after symptoms resolve .
Yes, staying home means falling behind at work or school. But by convalescing you’ll get better faster and avoid infecting others. Tell your employer you have the flu - many companies allow sick leave or remote work options. For missed school, contact teachers to get assignments and notes. Rest up and focus on recovering.
Only leave isolation if absolutely necessary, like for medical care. If you must go out, wear a mask and wash your hands frequently to prevent transmission. Avoid contact with higher-risk individuals until the contagious period passes. Take time to recover fully - rushing back usually prolongs illness.
Young woman suffering from Flu and taking rest at home.
Treat Symptoms Supportively
Since influenza is a viral infection, antibiotics are not effective. Treatment aims to relieve symptoms and complications while your immune system clears the virus. Here are some symptom-specific self-care tips:
For fevers, use over-the-counter acetaminophen or ibuprofen according to package instructions. Take hot baths, rest under cool sheets, and dress lightly to stay cool. Stay hydrated with water, broth, electrolyte drinks, ice pops, and gelatin.
To ease body aches, try heat pads, warm baths with Epsom salts, gentle stretches, and OTC pain relievers.
For stuffy noses, use saline nasal sprays and drops to thin mucus. Try steam inhalation and oral decongestants. Drink plenty of fluids. Use pillows to elevate your head at night.
For sore throats, gargle with salt water and sip warm liquids. Try sprays, lozenges, or analgesics that numb the throat. Avoid irritants like smoke and alcohol.
Coughs may respond to cough suppressants, expectorants, steam, honey, and increased fluid intake. Chest congestion can be relieved with hydration, rest, heat packs, and menthol rubs.
For headaches, try acetaminophen, cooling compresses to the head and neck, massage, and plenty of rest and fluids.
Don't suppress symptoms too aggressively. Coughing helps clear mucus, fevers support immune function, etc. Let your body heal itself while providing gentle symptom relief .
Know When You’re Contagious
People with the flu are most contagious in the first 3-4 days after symptoms begin. Children and people with weakened immune systems may remain contagious for a week or more.
You stop being contagious once you’ve gone 24 hours with no fever without using fever-reducing medication. So a sustained normal temperature below 100°F for a full day without acetaminophen or ibuprofen is a good indicator that you’re no longer communicable.
However, other symptoms like coughs and fatigue often persist longer even though you can’t transmit the virus once the fever breaks. Listen to your body and don’t overexert until you fully recover, even if the contagious period has passed.
Disinfect Your Home
Once everyone in your household has recovered, give your home a thorough disinfecting to eradicate lingering flu viruses. Focus on frequently touched surfaces that hands come into contact with.
Use EPA-registered disinfectants and follow instructions on effective contact times. Target doorknobs, light switches, remote controls, bathroom surfaces, kitchen counters, phones, keyboards, tablets, bedside tables, and toys.
Wash any towels, pillowcases, and bedsheets used by sick individuals separately in hot water and laundry sanitizer. Empty trash cans and remove tissues and other items that may be contaminated. Opening windows to air out your home can also help clear out lingering germs.
Replenish What You Lost
Illness depletes your body’s resources. Once your appetite returns, focus on replenishment and recovery. Drink lots of fluids and include electrolytes like sports beverages, broths, or coconut water.
Eat light, nutritious foods like oatmeal, yogurt, soft fruits, noodle soups, and scrambled eggs. Avoid greasy, sugary foods that can cause an upset stomach. Refuel with immune-boosting foods like citrus fruits, berries, leafy greens, nuts, lean proteins, and probiotic foods.
Listen to your body and increase activity gradually. Additional rest and self-care will help you bounce back more quickly. Don’t let the flu derail your health - with some preparation and TLC, you’ll be back in action before you know it.
While the flu can really take you down for the count, you’re not powerless against it. Following public health recommendations, making sensible lifestyle choices, monitoring symptoms carefully, and taking good care of yourself if you do get sick all help minimize the flu’s impact.
Implement this flu season game plan to stay happy and healthy. Know what to watch for and when to seek medical attention. With smart preventive steps and self-care, you can avoid the worst of flu season and sail through any cases mild to moderate.
Here’s to a flu-free season ahead! Stay well.
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