With cold and flu season in full swing, it’s critical to keep your immune system strong. Flu season usually spikes in January and February and can last until May. Keep your family safe over the coming months by practicing these healthy habits to prevent the spread of germs and reduce the risk of infections.
1. Know the difference between a cold and the flu
The common cold and the flu share many symptoms, so it can be difficult to spot the difference based on symptoms alone. The key difference between the two is the severity of symptoms. Cold symptoms are mild, and the onset is gradual, while flu symptoms hit quickly and intensely. Flu symptoms include:
- Body aches
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Sore throat
If you’re feeling ill, see your doctor for a flu test as soon as possible. Your doctor can give you a prescription for antiviral medicine that can help you recover more quickly. And if you’re feeling under the weather, please stay home. Don’t go to work, school or run errands. Of course, if you have the flu, you probably won’t feel like going anywhere anyway.
2. Get a flu shot
The single best way to protect yourself from the flu is by getting a flu shot every year to protect yourself from the influenza strains believed the be the most common during an upcoming flu season.
Still, even if you do get a flu shot, there’s a chance you could get sick. That’s why it’s critical to keep healthy habits top of mind all flu season long.
3. Wash your hands
One of the easiest and most effective ways to prevent the flu is by keeping your hands clean. In fact, washing your hands can lower the risk of respiratory infection by 16%, so wash your hands often and encourage others to do the same.
Wash your hands before eating or preparing food, after using the bathroom, after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing, and after coming in contact with a sick person. To properly wash your hands:
- Wet your hands with clean, running water. It can be hot or cold.
- Apply soap and work it into a lather, paying extra attention to the backs of your hands, between your fingers and under your fingernails.
- Scrub for at least 20 seconds—about the same length of time as singing “Happy Birthday” twice.
- Rinse your hands under clean, running water, and dry them using a clean towel or let them air dry.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends washing your hands with clean, running water, but if you’re not near a sink, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol will do.
4. Cover your cough
Cough or sneeze into a tissue or in the crook of your arm and wash your hands immediately rather than coughing or sneezing into your hand. This prevents germs from becoming airborne and keeps them off of your hands.
5. Keep your hands out of your mouth
Whether you’re biting your nails or eating out of a bag of potato chips, your hands come in contact with your mouth—and your eyes and nose—a lot more than you may realize. Your eyes, nose and mouth are all portals for germs to spread to your mucous membrane, where they could develop into a cold or the flu.
6. Disinfect objects and surfaces
Think of all the things you come in contact with on a daily basis: phones, doorknobs, TV remotes, keyboards, coffee pot handles, bathroom fixtures, elevator buttons, ATMs, railings, toys, grocery carts, gym equipment—the list goes on. According to the CDC, the flu virus can live on some surfaces for up to 48 hours.
When was the last time you disinfected your steering wheel or wiped down your desk at work? Make a habit of regularly cleaning frequently used objects and surfaces with a virus-killing disinfectant, especially during cold and flu season. Look for cleaning products that contain:
- Detergents (soap)
- Hydrogen peroxide
- Iodophors (iodine-based antiseptics)
7. Stay away from sick people
Don’t spend time around sick people unless you have to, and be cautious of the visitors you allow into your home. Young children, pregnant women and adults over the age of 65 are most susceptible to getting the flu and more likely to experience complications from the flu.
8. Keep your immune system strong
There is no quick fix to stop a cold in its tracks. No amount of oranges or vitamin C powder packets can stave off symptoms the moment you feel a tingle in your nose or a tickle in your throat. Your immune system is stronger when healthy habits are a part of your lifestyle, so be sure to prioritize sleep, hydration, exercise and eating well year-round.
What to Do If You Get the Flu
The CDC recommends that people, especially those at a higher risk for complications, seek antiviral treatment from a doctor as soon as possible. Antivirals are most beneficial if treatment begins within two days of the onset of symptoms.
Most healthy people who get the flu will recover within seven to 10 days, and the most intense symptoms subside after four days. Be sure to get lots of rest, drink plenty of fluids and take medication as instructed by your doctor.
Keeping your family healthy this cold and flu season starts with you, so be sure to get vaccinated, wash your hands and, as always, contact your doctor if you think you or someone you care about may have flu symptoms.