Avoiding the Flu

Health, Home & Family
on October 16, 2005

Flu season is just around the corner and that means it’s time to get serious about staying healthy and protecting yourself against the viral illness that can make you feel miserable.

Influenza viruses are spread in the droplets of moisture released when an infected person coughs or sneezes. So it’s easy for people to become infected by opening a doorknob, exchanging money or pushing a shopping cart, and then touching their mouth or nose.

Each year, 5 percent to 20 percent of the U.S. population gets the flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and 36,000 people die from the illness and the complications it causes. That’s why, along with an annual flu shot, anticipating and avoiding situations where you can pick up the virus just makes good sense.

Hygiene is fundamental

Wash your hands thoroughly and often and use plenty of soap and water. That’s the anti-flu advice of health care professionals.

“Use plenty of hot soap and water and rub your hands together,” says Sherri Dodson, a registered nurse and program director for the Butler County Health Department in Poplar Bluff, Mo. (pop. 16,651). “We recommend you wash them for about the length of time it takes to sing Happy Birthday to yourself twice.” To prevent re-infection, use a paper towel or your elbow to shut off the water faucet.

At a minimum, wash your hands three times a day and more often during peak flu season, especially if you have contact with someone who already is ill, adds Laura Fullerton, a nurse practitioner with the Knox County Health Department in Galesburg, Ill. (pop. 33,706). “The point is to get the germs off your hands so you don’t pick up the virus,” Fullerton says.

Get immunized

While proper hygiene is a good way to reduce your risk of infection, an annual flu shot is an even better deterrent.

“Getting immunized helps you develop antibodies to the three strains of flu that are expected to be common in any given year,” Fullerton says. “The shot not only protects you, it can protect those around you because it prevents the virus from multiplying and spreading.”

Timing is critical when it comes to getting the flu shot. Late October or November are the best times to get vaccinated, but getting vaccinated in December or even later can be beneficial. Flu season can begin as early as October and last into May.

“It takes the body about two weeks to develop antibodies and that immunity lasts three to four months,” Fullerton says.

Flu symptoms include a high fever, headache, fatigue, dry cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose and muscle aches. Complications can include bacterial pneumonia, dehydration and worsening of chronic medical conditions, such as congestive heart failure, asthma or diabetes.

While a flu shot is a good idea for everyone, Fullerton and Dodson recommend that people over age 65, young children, health care workers and those who are caretakers for others get immunized. It’s also a good idea for people who are in regular contact with the public—schoolteachers, store clerks and workers in large offices—to get immunized.

“Protecting yourself and others against the flu is a matter of immunity,” Dodson says. “If as many people as possible are immunized, it cuts everyone’s risk and reduces the chances of the flu becoming an epidemic.”

Flu-fighting Strategies

• Getting sufficient sleep to boost your immune system and eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, which are rich in disease-fighting nutrients.

• Staying home if you’re sick. You can pass the flu to others beginning one day before you have symptoms and up to five days after you get sick.

• Using liquid hand-sanitizers when soap and water aren’t available. Every time you shake hands with someone, use currency to pay for something or touch any object that another person has touched, the risk of infection increases.

• Disinfecting shared objects and surfaces such as telephone receivers and computer keyboards. When possible, put a barrier such as a paper towel or tissue between your hand and contagion-rich surfaces such as doorknobs or the coffeepot handle.

• Staying out of crowds, especially in January and February, the height of the flu season, also reduces chances for infection.