This article is a go-to-guide for a few scientifically-backed suggestions to limit your risk during this flu season.
1. Get the flu shot:
Getting your flu shot only takes a few minutes to do, and it’s a very safe1 and easy way to decrease your chances of coming down with the flu this year. Vaccination is especially important if you have a weakened immune system (e.g. older people and people with serious illnesses) or if you are in close proximity to people with weakened immune systems. It’s estimated that flu vaccination decreases your risk of getting the flu by 40% to 60%2. The reason for such a wide variation in protection is mainly because the flu virus that comes around every year is a little bit different. This has to do with the type of molecules that sit on the flu particle. These molecules can change very easily, and it’s the reason why we have flu names such as H1N1 or H3N2. The “H” and the “N” molecules can change and combine to form different types of flu. The flu vaccine you get will only cover a certain type of flu, and the flu shot that is given every year is for the type of flu that is predicted to be going around that season. This is also why you need a new flu vaccine every year. Sometimes the predictions are good, so if you get vaccinated, you will be unlikely to get sick. However, you should still maintain good hygiene to protect yourself from the flu or any other infections. When the predictions are not as good, then the vaccine you receive will be less likely to prevent a flu infection, which means you should make sure to do other steps to prevent yourself from getting sick.
2. Wash your hands:
Washing your hands seems easy enough, but most people do not actually wash their hands properly. The proper way to wash your hands means doing so in warm water with soap for at least 20 seconds, and this includes washing the backs of your hands, under your nails, and in between your fingers. If soap and water are not available, you can also use an alcohol-based hand gel. Proper hand washing will remove germs like the flu from your hands. Washing your hands is important to do not just after you use the restroom, but also after you have been in contact with a large amount of people, such as after using public transport, and after touching public doorknobs, railings or buttons. If you cannot wash your hands after sharing public spaces, then try to avoid touching your eyes or mouth until you do so. These areas of your body are potential gateways for germs.
3. Stay home when you are sick:
This piece of advice just makes common sense since the flu only spreads from close contact with infected people, but staying home when sick can be difficult for many people to do due to their obligations with work. Many employers might feel that they will see a significant drop in productivity at work if people take sick leave, but people who go to work sick cannot function at their peak productivity. Furthermore, they just spread their illness to everyone else. This means that one sick worker can turn into multiple sick workers.
Countries with strong worker protections and a more relaxed working culture tend to have to worry less about catching something from an infected co-worker. Growing up in the US while also living and traveling in Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom has given me first hand experience of the differences in these health care systems and how they handle the spread of infection. Flu seasons in the US tend to be more detrimental because many people don’t have adequate health coverage, and workers don’t have the protections to stay home when sick. Health care access and coverage in Japan and the UK is far better, but their cultures are heavily geared towards working even while sick. Germany, on the other hand, has a similar level of health care coverage as Japan or the UK, but the culture is more balanced between work and personal life, and there are many protections for workers when they get sick. So, if you want to decrease your chances of getting sick from fellow colleagues, the best thing to do would be to push for better worker protections and rights to take medical leave. But that’s a long-term solution. In the short term, try to stay home from work when you’re sick and encourage your co-workers to do the same.
4. Keep fit and eat a balanced diet:
This piece of advice is probably one of the hardest ones to follow because it means year-round work and it isn’t just a quick fix during flu season. Maintaining a healthy weight and keeping a balanced diet helps keep your immune system working at peak performance. Obesity has been linked to an increased risk in severe complications from a flu infection, and new studies suggest that obese individuals are more likely to shed the flu virus for longer periods of time, making them more likely to spread the flu to more people3. In addition, people with diabetes are already predisposed to complications from the flu due to the virus4. They also need to take care of their diet and sugar intake especially since certain flu medications can cause an increase level of blood sugar resulting in severe complications5.
5. Home remedies won’t protect you from the flu:
There are a lot of home remedies out there claiming to cure the flu or prevent infection, but none of them have been proven by science to actually work. Some diet supplements like vitamin C and zinc have some evidence for being useful to dealing with a cold, but they have not been proven effective in dealing with the flu6,7. If you have any questions about any supplement or remedy, the National Institutes of Health maintains a page that displays more information about the science (or the lack thereof) of these remedies8.
There is currently no 100% effective preventative measure to prevent the flu. The best practice is to keep your guard up and follow these steps to cut your risk of catching it. If you do get sick, try to stay home, get lots of fluids and rest, and eat a balanced diet. Of course, if symptoms continue to worsen to severe complications (e.g. extremely high fever or an inability to breathe) seek immediate medical attention. For most people the flu just means several uncomfortable days in bed followed by a full recovery, but no one likes being sick and the flu can be deadly, so the best thing is to just avoid it altogether.
If you’re interested in contacting your representative about sick leave and worker’s rights, you can find contact information here:
Whitney Weigel is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Ottawa studying the role of the bacteria and viruses in the development of inflammatory bowel disease. She previously completed a two year postdoctoral fellowship at the Helmholtz Institute for Infection Research in Braunschweig, Germany, studying the bacteria Yersinia pseudotuberculosis. She received her Ph. D. and M. Sc. at the University of Louisville in her hometown Louisville, Kentucky, USA where she worked on bacteria involved in periodontal disease.