We know what you’re thinking: It’s March. Isn’t flu season over? In a typical year, it is by now. But the 2018-2019 flu season has been far from typical, says David L. Katz, MD, MPH, founding director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center at Yale University.
“It’s been an odd flu season, with a shift in flu strains from a fairly mild strain to what we’re seeing now, which is a different and more virulent version of the flu,” he says.
In fact, the weekly influenza report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds widespread flu activity in 49 states and Puerto Rico (the only state to escape the latest barrage of illness is Hawaii).
Fortunately, there are a few steps you can take — still — to reduce your risk of contracting the flu.
If you haven’t already, get your flu shot — STAT. “It’s not too late to get the flu shot, but you need to get it now,” Katz says. “There’s no time to waste.” The flu shot typically takes about two weeks to take effect, but it can still provide protection.
Try not to “run into” the flu. With the flu virus as widespread as it is, it’s a pretty good bet that someone in your office, at your gym, or even at the grocery store has the flu. “Flu is highly contagious, and usually by the time people show signs of being sick, they’ve already spread it around,” Katz says. Even still, you can reduce your risk by not hugging or shaking hands with someone who’s obviously sick.
Wash your hands — frequently! And remember that the flu virus can live for up to 24 hours on door handles and handrails, so even if you don’t see anyone around you who’s sick, don’t touch a surface and then touch your own nose or mouth. “The vaccine works within the body, but it won’t protect you from being exposed to the flu virus in the environment,” Katz says.
Fortify your immune system. “The more you enhance your immune defenses, the more effectively you can meet the challenges of the flu virus,” Katz says. That means exercising regularly, sleeping the recommended 7-8 hours per night, and embracing an anti-inflammatory diet. Reducing inflammation is really the key, says Katz, whose new book, The Truth About Food, explores the relationship between diet and health. “A sedentary lifestyle can increase inflammation, a diet of highly processed foods can do the same. It’s true that healthy people are less likely to get sick, and when they do, they recover more quickly.”
If you smoke or drink, just don’t. The jury is still out on whether a glass of wine with dinner is beneficial to your health, but if you’re trying to protect yourself from the flu, your best bet is to lay off the alcohol, Katz says. “Instead, load up on water and go to bed early,” he says. Smoking at any time is detrimental to your health, but particularly when you’re trying to stay healthy.
If you start to feel poorly, dial back on exercise. Yes, exercise is health promoting, but there’s some evidence that intense exercise can temporarily depress the immune system. “If you feel unwell, don’t stop but do dial it down so your body can send all of its resources to shore up your immunity,” Katz says.
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