Though we associate chilly fall temperatures with flu season, the two are not mutually inclusive. The time in which the flu virus is most contagious is widely known as the "season," and though that time of year usually starts in October and peaks from December to February, flu deaths have already been reported in the United States. While it remains difficult to predict how severe this season will be, it's not too late to create a plan of attack.
Dr. Nodar Janas, medical director at Upper East Side Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, told Salon that because flu symptoms can develop days after the virus enters the body, it's possible to spread the flu to someone else before know you are sick, as well as while you are sick.
"The flu is spread in a few different ways. One way is through contact with bodily fluid, so if someone with the flu coughs or sneezes and doesn't cover their mouth or nose, anyone who comes in contact is at risk of getting sick," Janas explained. "Most people are most contagious 3–4 days after the flu begins. However, in some cases you can also infect people even before symptoms begin."
Here are some tips on how to prepare for the flu season.
Get your flu vaccine.
The best way to protect against serious outcomes of the flu virus is to get vaccinated, according to nearly every medical professional or health care expert Salon spoke with for this article.
The effectiveness of the influenza vaccine, which combines four different inactive flu strains, varies from person to person. Recent studies show that flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness between 40% and 60% of people.
The flu vaccine is not perfect, mostly because of the number of strains of the virus that circulate, but it can provide some cover. Because flu virus strains evolve every year, medical experts recommend getting vaccinated annually.
Nasal spray is also an option for patients who are needle-averse. In previous years, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended children be vaccinated with a shot, as some studies showed it was more effective. There is no such suggestion this year.
Wash your hands.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends washing your hands frequently and for at least 20 seconds at a time (perhaps sing the "Happy Birthday" song from beginning to end.) When washing your hands, "be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between the fingers, and under your nails," the CDC notes.
"People are more germ-conscious these days so avoiding a handshake is not as rude as once thought, especially during flu season. If you must do it, wash or sanitize with your hands immediately," Dr. Benjamin Barlow, chief medical officer of American Family Care, told Salon.
Keep your distance.
It's easy to spread germs when living in close quarters, especially during the winter months when more people tend to stay indoors. However, doctors recommend avoiding close contact and sharing during the season.
"Since viruses like the flu spread through droplets secreted through coughing, sneezing and breathing, spending hours in close proximity to a person who is sick, breathing in the droplets, is a sure-fire way to get sick," Dr. Anna Cabeca, a physician and author of "The Hormone Fix" told Salon. "A good combo is to regularly wash your hands, carry a scarf when traveling and perhaps to wear a face mask, especially if you are susceptible, or if you're sick yourself and don't want to contaminate others."
Get enough sleep.
Sleep is critical to maintaining and strengthening our immune system, which is constantly working to quash various kinds of viruses and bacteria. During flu season, doctors advise making sleep a priority and trying to get the recommended 8 hours of sleep each night.
Reduce stress levels.
Relieving stress and anxiety levels is key to increasing your overall health and sense of well-being. Dr. Steve Silvestro, a pediatrician in the Washington, D.C., area and the host of The Child Repair Guide Podcast, said managing mental stress is "one of the best ways to keep healthy during flu season."
"It has to do with the effects of cortisol on our immune system," he explained to Salon. "We know that a short burst of cortisol — say, going on a short run — can help the immune system by briefly decreasing inflammation. But when cortisol is chronically elevated, like when we are feeling stressed at work or home for long stretches of time, inflammation in our bodies increases, and our immune system has a harder time fighting off infection."
In that way, taking care of your metal health — perhaps by doing something you love, such as spending time in nature — can help your immune system stay strong.