Staying healthy in winter is always a challenge. With the increased amount of time spent indoors due to harsh weather, avoiding the flu requires vigilant adherence to healthy practices, as well as specific measures that can reduce your chances of contracting the flu. Keeping the flu away may be time-consuming and requires some planning ahead, but it is considerably better than developing flu symptoms. With the flu you lose productive family and work time and having to endure the misery associated with the illness. Unlike a cold or other respiratory tract infection, influenza may not be self-limiting. An infected patient can develop serious issues-including fatal ones.
Role of overall health maintenance in avoiding the winter flu
General health practices become particularly important when trying to avoid the winter flu. Eating a well-balanced diet helps to ensure that your body’s immune system is up for any challenges that are presented. Getting plenty of sleep allows your body to rebuild and recuperate. Physical exercise stimulates the body’s immune system to fight off germs. Minimizing and/or eliminating stress reduces the additional demands that it places on the body.
Adequate fluid intake helps the body to “turn over” the serum compartment in the blood and assists in flushing out unnecessary metabolites and metabolic wastes. A regimen of personal hygiene (particularly bathing, showering and oral care) reduces the risk of harmful microbes.
Smokers or people who are exposed to secondhand smoke may be more prone to respiratory tract infections, so minimize your exposure to tobacco smoke or other irritants. Over-indulgence in alcoholic beverages places additional stress on the body’s immune system, so eliminate or restrict your intake of alcohol. While these may all seem like basic principles of healthy living, they become particularly important when the risk of exposure to contagious respiratory illnesses increases.
Specific measures to avoid contracting the winter flu
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the United States Food and Drug Administration, and the Mayo Clinic all recommend an annual influenza vaccine as the first line of defense against contracting the flu. The immunization is available as either an injection or in nasal spray form. It is recommended for all Americans over the age of 6 months. Each year’s seasonal flu vaccine is formulated to help protect against the three most common strains of flu that are projected for that year. Some people may experience an immune reaction following vaccination, which may include very mild flu-like symptoms. The virus contained within the vaccine has been inactivated; it cannot cause a person to develop the flu.
Frequent and thorough hand washing becomes particularly important during the winter flu season. The influenza virus can be spread by coughing, sneezing, and touching contaminated surfaces. Washing your hands thoroughly for 20 seconds with warm water and soap is the preferred method. When this method is not practical, using an alcohol-based hand rub is an acceptable alternative. If hands are visibly dirty, some contaminants such as blood or dirt can inactivate the alcohol, leaving it incapable of killing germs.
Avoiding contact with people who are displaying respiratory symptoms (runny nose, coughing, etc.) may seem obvious, but during the winter flu season it becomes even more important. Minimizing exposure to those people who may be infected will markedly decrease your chances of contracting the flu. This becomes extremely important for the very young, seniors, and those that may already have an impaired immune system.
One of the simplest modes of transmission is to touch your eyes, ears, mouth, or face after touching a contaminated surface. Do your best to keep your hands away from your face and head. If you need to cough or sneeze, cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or sneeze into the inner crook of your elbow. Disinfect telephones, cell phones, and other surfaces that may be touched or handled by either yourself or other people.
All of these steps may seem like common sense, but they can be easily overlooked during the course of a routine day. Vigilant adherence to these practices, in addition to receiving an influenza vaccination, can dramatically reduce the chances of developing this serious and potentially life-threatening illness.