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Protect yourself from this year's flu
Worried about catching the flu? We don’t blame you—last year’s flu season was a whopper. It’s impossible to tell exactly how many people got sick, but it’s estimated that some 30,000 Americans landed in the hospital with influenza, and at one point, the virus claimed more than 1,600 lives in a single week. What the heck? "The severity of the outbreak last year was particularly high,” explains Stephen Baum, MD, a professor of medicine and of microbiology & immunology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. Last year, the most prevalent strain of the virus, H3N2, spread quickly and caused severe symptoms, which may explain why so many people were hospitalized. Another factor: Flu vaccines are created before flu season actually begins in the United States, based on flu activity in Australia and South America (where the season starts six months earlier). Like any flu strain, H3N2 can mutate, and last year it did. As a result, the vaccine wasn’t the best match. That may be part of the reason it was only about 40% effective. All of this is to say: The flu’s no joke. But thankfully, experts agree that there are plenty of things you can do to ward off the virus and stay healthy. And, of course, we asked them to share every single one of them!
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Get to know the different flu types
There are actually four types of flu viruses. These are the three that affect people.
Influenza A is constantly changing and has many subtypes and strains (including H3N2). It typically causes the most intense symptoms and often leads to major outbreaks. Influenza A can be spread by animals, including wild birds (the avian flu is a strain of A).
Influenza B only infects humans and is usually (but not always) less severe than A.
Influenza C is also a strictly human virus, but it tends to be milder than A and B, and doesn’t lead to epidemics.
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You have to get the flu shot
Why? Because one prick could keep you from missing weeks of work (or worse). The flu vaccine is never 100% effective, but “it still prevents millions of illnesses and deaths each year,” says William Schaffner, MD, an infectious-disease expert at Vanderbilt University. “Even if you do get sick, your symptoms are likely to be milder.” The shot also slashes your odds of passing the virus to babies, the elderly, and anyone with a compromised immune system (like a cancer patient).
How does it work? The flu vaccine contains either an inactivated virus (found in the injected shot) or a weakened live virus (found in the inhaled influenza vaccine). Those viruses prompt your body’s immune system to create antibodies that fight the real flu virus if you come in contact with it. The vaccine protects against two strains of influenza A (H1N1 and H3N2) as well as one to two strains of influenza B.
Which kind is best? “The shot is always a safe bet,” says Dr. Schaffner. But if you hate needles, for this flu season the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has given the green light to the nasal flu vaccine. For the past few years, experts weren’t sure if it worked, but this year—with the addition of another A strain—they think it might be more effective.
When should you get it? Late September or early October. The vaccine is usually available as early as August—but because it’s only effective for about six to seven months, waiting until fall officially begins can ensure you have coverage through the end of flu season (which is typically late April). Though you may have heard otherwise, you don’t have to get a vaccine twice in a single season: “Just wait until fall so you’re protected for the next six months,” says Dr. Schaffner
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Turbocharge your immunity
A strong immune system reduces your chances of getting sick—and helps you get better faster if you do wind up catching something. Follow these guidelines to boost your flu-fighting army.
Break a sweat most days. Regular exercise promotes good circulation, which helps illness-thwarting immune cells travel throughout your body to do their job. A well-timed workout may even boost the effectiveness of your flu shot: Researchers found that people who exercised after they got the vaccine had nearly twice as many influenza antibodies one month later.
Eat healthy. The verdict is still out on whether certain nutrients, such as vitamins C and D, can boost your defenses, but docs still want you to pay attention to what you eat. “A healthy, well-balanced diet plays a part in keeping your immune system healthy,” says Ruth M. Brocato, MD, a family physician at Mercy Personal Physicians in Lutherville, Maryland. Her advice: Focus on whole foods.
Get a massage. One study found that a single session of Swedish massage increased adults’ levels of white blood cells. Don’t have time (or cash) for a spa treatment? Do yoga, get dinner with a funny friend, or choose any other relaxing activity: Stress decreases lymphocytes, white blood cells that help fight off infections like the flu.
Warm up—in the sauna, that is. In one study, adults who went to a sauna twice a week caught half as many colds as those who didn’t. It’s not yet clear why saunas help, but some researchers think a session may increase white blood cell count.
Go to bed already! Research shows that getting less than seven to eight hours of sleep impairs your body’s ability to make and circulate immune cells.
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Dodge germs with these smart tricks
Steer clear of close talkers. Sneezing and coughing aren’t the only ways to transmit flu germs: Recently researchers found that people with the flu could indeed spread it just by exhaling. You’ll want to make sure to give others plenty of personal space during peak season. Someone who is infected with the virus can be contagious even before their first symptoms strike.
Stock up on wipes. Alcohol-based hand sanitizer is great for keeping your hands clean—but don’t stop there. “The flu virus may live longer on hard surfaces than soft ones. Use antibacterial wipes on door handles, hand rails, buttons on your phone or copy machine, and anything else that other people are touching during flu season,” says Lisa Yakas, a microbiologist and senior project manager at NSF International, a global public health and safety company. Disinfect every few hours if you’re in close contact with someone who’s fluish.
Quit rubbing your eyes. You probably reach up to your face more often than you realize, and it’s a risky habit: “Your eyes, along with your nose and mouth, are lined with mucous membranes,” explains Dr. Schaffner. “Touching them allows germs on your fingers to slip into your body.” Hopefully that visual alone is enough to help you stop.
Add moisture. It’s thought that the flu virus fares better in dry air, so setting up a humidifier might help remove it from your environment faster. Just remember to clean the machine regularly (or it may become a breeding ground for other microbial invaders).
Accessorize with scarves. When you’re on a bus, or in a waiting room, and someone near you is sneezing, coughing, or just looks under the weather, your scarf will come in handy: “Cover your nose and mouth to avoid breathing in their germs,” says Yakas.
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What to do if you're feeling sick
The quicker you begin treatment, the shorter and less intense your flu is likely to be.
Step 1: Get tested—now. Stop worrying about being a hypochondriac and go to your doctor’s office or a drugstore clinic and ask to be tested for the flu. “A nose swab can tell you if you have the flu in about 15 minutes,” says Carl Fichtenbaum, MD, a professor of clinical medicine at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.
Step 2: Get on antiviral medicine. There’s no cure for the flu, but taking a prescription antiviral medication (a.k.a. neuraminidase inhibitors, which block the enzymes that allow the virus to move from one cell to another) within two days of getting sick can greatly reduce the severity of your symptoms. (It also lowers the odds you’ll pass the flu to someone else.) Have an Rx left over from last year? Make sure you check the expiration date, says Baum.
Step 3: Stay home. Aside from antiviral meds, the only thing you can do to get over the flu is rest up and hydrate to replace the fluids you’ve lost from sweating and breathing heavily. Pain relievers like ibuprofen can help reduce body aches and fever. It takes about seven days from the day you became ill for your body to beat the virus, and you should stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone.