The influenza virus is highly contagious, and when flu season begins, avoiding the illness can feel tricky. However, there are many effective ways to avoid getting sick this flu season.
In the United States, flu activity often begins in October, peaks between December and February, and can last as late as May, depending on the state.
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, reducing the spread of the flu and all other respiratory illnesses is more important than ever.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), during the 2018–2019 flu season, an estimated 35.5 million people caught the flu, resulting in around 34,000 deaths.
While there is no guaranteed way to avoid the influenza virus, there are many ways to minimize exposure, build up immunity, and reduce the risk of infection.
This article looks at various methods that people can use to avoid catching the flu and other viral infections during flu season.
Getting a flu shot, or flu vaccine, is the single most effective way to protect oneself and others from the illness.
A seasonal flu shot protects against the flu-causing viruses that research indicates will predominate during the year’s flu season. One shot usually protects against three or four different viruses.
The CDC recommend getting a flu shot in September or October, but having one at any time during the season will help.
Getting a flu shot usually involves going to a doctor’s office or pharmacy and receiving a simple injection in the upper arm.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. will be providing more flu vaccines than ever before. Up to 198 million vaccines will be available for the 2020–2021 flu season, a figure higher than the current record of 175 million, recorded the previous season.
How and where people get their vaccines may vary due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The CDC provide guidelines about locating flu shots.
Who should get the flu shot?
The CDC recommend that everyone older than 6 months get an annual flu vaccination. The right type of shot can vary, depending on a person’s age, health status, and whether they are pregnant.
Babies younger than 6 months and people with life-threatening allergies to any ingredient in the vaccine should not get one.
Also, anyone who has ever had Guillain-Barré syndrome should talk to a doctor before getting vaccinated.
Does the flu shot work?
Every year, the flu vaccine reduces the number of flu infections and saves lives. Research shows that between 2005 and 2014, the flu vaccine saved over 40,000 lives in the U.S.
Researchers have also found that the seasonal flu shot has the following effects:
- When the flu vaccine is well-matched to the circulating viruses, it can reduce the risk of flu by 40–60%.
- The flu shot has reduced hospitalization from serious flu complications by 60% in children.
- When people received the flu vaccine during pregnancy, flu cases in infants younger than 6 months reduced by 70%.
- In people with type 2 diabetes, the flu shot reduced hospital admissions by 30% for stroke, 22% for heart failure, and 15% for pneumonia and the flu.
Also, the flu vaccine does not heighten susceptibility to flu infection during seasons of vaccine mismatch.
Is the flu shot safe?
Flu vaccines have a good safety record — extensive research supports their safety.
Although a flu shot can cause mild side effects, such as a headache or nausea, in some people, it cannot cause the flu. Learn more here.
Many myths circulate about vaccinations, including that they weaken the immune system, lead to autism, or contain unsafe toxins. These claims are not based on scientific evidence.
Like vaccines, proper hygiene habits can defend against the flu.
The flu virus is extremely contagious — it can spread to someone standing within 6 feet via droplets produced when coughing, sneezing, or talking. Less often, people catch the flu by touching contaminated surfaces.
A 2018 study found that people can transfer the flu virus to others simply by breathing.
Other research demonstrated that a single contaminated doorknob or tabletop could spread a flu virus to 40–60% of workers and office visitors within just 2–4 hours of contamination.
The findings emphasize the importance of good hygiene practices in the workplace and public areas, as well as the need to go home as soon as flu symptoms begin.
Following a few simple steps can minimize the spread of respiratory viruses, including the flu:
- Avoid close contact. If you are unwell, stay home and avoid contact as much as possible. If another person is unwell, offer them support from afar.
- Cover the mouth and nose. Use a tissue to do so when sneezing and coughing, and dispose of the tissue immediately after use.
- Keep clean hands. Regularly wash the hands with soap and water. When this is not available, use an alcohol-based sanitizer. Find the CDC’s guidelines here.
- Try not to touch the eyes, nose, or mouth. Wash your hands first to ensure that they are germ-free.
- Clean and disinfect surfaces. This applies to any that people come into contact with, at work, school, or home.
Research from 2012 indicates that hand hygiene and wearing surgical masks reduced the spread of flu-like symptoms by up to 75% in university dorms.
These are prescription medications that can reduce flu severity and complications. They may also prevent people from getting the flu.
The drugs work by fighting the flu virus and preventing it from multiplying in the body.
Taking these antivirals within 2 days of flu symptoms appearing can reduce symptoms and shorten the duration of the illness. The antivirals can also reduce the risk of death among people with flu so severe that they require care in a hospital.
Most people with uncomplicated flu cases do not need treatment. Symptoms typically improve with plenty of rest, fluids, and over-the-counter medicines.
A doctor might prescribe antiviral drugs as a treatment or preventive option if a person has an increased risk of severe flu complications.
So far, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have approved four antiviral drugs that the CDC recommend for combatting currently circulating flu viruses:
- oseltamivir (Tamiflu)
- zanamivir (Relenza)
- peramivir (Rapivab)
- baloxavir marboxil (Xofluza)
However, some doctors approach these drugs with caution. A Cochrane systematic review from 2014, for example, questioned the benefits and explored the harms of Tamiflu and Relenza.
Also, antiviral drugs are no substitute for the flu vaccine.
The immune system protects the body from infection. When it is functioning properly, the immune system launches an attack on threats, such as flu viruses.
While the immune system usually does a good job of regulating itself, certain disorders, allergies, asthma, and some medications can limit immune function.
The following strategies can benefit the whole body, including the immune system:
- eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables
- exercising frequently
- aiming to maintain a moderate BMI
- sleeping for 7–9 hours each night
- reducing stress
Studies have produced some interesting findings concerning the immune system and the flu.
Vitamin D plays a vital role in the functioning of the immune system. In people with low baseline vitamin D levels, taking supplements of the vitamin may halve the risk of respiratory infections such as the flu.
Meanwhile, flavonoids, which are antioxidants found in blueberries, red wine, and black tea, may help to control the immune response. According to a 2016 review, taking flavonoid supplements may reduce the incidence and impact of upper respiratory tract infections.
In addition, physical activity can have either a positive or negative effect on the functioning of the immune system. Regular moderate exercise reduces the risk of infection, while intense exercise, such as marathon running, could increase the risk.
Quitting smoking could be a useful way to prevent the flu — not only for the individual but for anyone else in the house.
People who smoke have an exaggerated response to viruses, including those that cause the flu. As a result, people who smoke are more likely to have fatal complications during flu epidemics than those who do not.
A team from the University of Rochester Medical Center, in New York, discovered that children exposed to secondhand smoke are more likely to need intensive care and a longer stay when hospitalized with the flu.
Many of the measures that help people avoid the flu, such as good hygiene, face coverings, and immune system support, also help people avoid SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
However, the virus that causes COVID-19 is different from the virus that causes the flu, so the seasonal flu vaccine will not protect against COVID-19.