I can tell it's already cold and flu season with just one look around the office. There are people coughing, blowing their noses, and struggling through fatigue.
Typically, flu season doesn't really start until October. But we've already seen confirmed cases in the U.S. Just last week, a plane landing at JFK airport in New York had 19 people taken off with illness. Several of them tested positive for the flu.
The only thing that travels faster than the flu seems to be misinformation. So my team put together some frequently asked questions to help keep you informed and safe.
Is it a cold or the flu?
Both the common cold and the flu come from viruses, meaning antibiotics won't kill them. But you should know of and take precautions if you have the flu.
Symptoms of colds come on gradually. They include things like sneezing, coughing, a stuffy nose, and a sore throat. The flu hits you more suddenly, with symptoms appearing quickly. Although you sometimes experience the same symptoms as those of a cold, the more common symptoms include chills, fever, fatigue, coughing and chest pain, and headache.
Colds usually last a few days, but the flu lasts at least a week, if not longer. And although colds typically don't trigger complications, the flu increases your risk of heart attack and respiratory complications.
I have the flu. How long am I contagious?
The flu spreads through both contact (like kissing) and airborne particles called aerosols. These aerosols spread through coughing, sneezing, or talking. In fact, a study from the University of Maryland in January stated that simply breathing out sends these particles into the air. You can also get the flu from touching a contaminated area. So let's say someone infected sneezes on his hand and then touches a doorknob. If you touch that doorknob and then touch your face, the flu virus could infect you.
Here's an important point folks tend to miss: You are contagious the day before you notice symptoms and remain contagious for a full five to seven days. Even if you begin to feel better, you're still spreading the disease. And this contagious period remains the same if you're taking antivirals to help lessen the severity of your symptoms.
I have to go out in public. Can I reduce the chance of infecting everyone?
The best option, of course, is to stay home if you're able to do so. If you have to go out, wash your hands often (and always before and after touching any public surfaces). Cover your coughs and sneezes as best you can. Wash and disinfect your belongings. It's a good idea to wash bedding, for instance, as well as to wipe down work stations, car steering wheels, and other surfaces you might touch.
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How do I prevent getting the flu?
Taking similar precautions to those listed above will help. Wash your hands often and avoid touching your face. Try to avoid time spent around those with the flu.
I also like to take vitamin C and zinc during the winter to help fight off any colds or flu coming my way. Make sure you get plenty of sleep, too – proper sleep helps keep your immune system working well so you can fight off any germs.
Keep up with your exercise. Regular exercise also helps keep your immune system strong. If you go to a gym, however, be sure to wipe down the equipment and wash your hands thoroughly before and after. You can also skip the gym and still get plenty of exercise – I love to go on lunchtime walks. Just 20 minutes at a moderate pace is a great workout.
Finally, consider getting a flu shot. They're already available for the 2018-2019 season. It's important to remember that the shot takes about two weeks to reach a full level of protection. That's why you should get it before the end of October when flu season starts to peak.
Are flu shots worth it?
I've recommended flu shots for certain groups of folks in the past (you can read our issue here). But I've had mixed thoughts on the vaccine over the years. And to be honest, many of my readers also have mixed feelings.
Here's the bottom line: If you're a healthy adult, chances are you don't need the vaccine. But if you're in a group that's at a higher risk for complications, you should get a flu shot. That includes:
- Folks 65 and older
- Those with a compromised immune system (including autoimmune diseases like Crohn's and those undergoing cancer treatment)
- Those with heart disease at risk of heart attack
- Pregnant women
- Babies and young children
Similarly, if you're around someone who falls into one of these groups, consider a vaccine. For instance, if you're caring for someone recovering from chemotherapy, you don't want to risk exposing them. Complications for these folks can be life-threatening or fatal.
Each year, anywhere from 5% to 20% of the population gets the flu. And about 200,000 people wind up in the hospital because of it. Take these steps to educate yourself and lower your risk today.
What We're Reading...
- More from the University of Maryland study.
- A handy chart about the difference between a cold and the flu.
- How long are you contagious? Longer than you think.
- Something different: Are men doomed?
Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,
Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
September 13, 2018