Flu epidemics usually begin in January or February (and tend to end by April), and it takes a couple of weeks to develop immunity from the vaccination. Still, if you haven’t gotten your flu shot yet, getting it in December or even January, is still better than not getting it at all.
While the vaccine doesn’t guarantee that you won’t get sick from the flu; it does reduce the chance of getting infected and, if you do get sick, the severity of the illness. Moreover, it reduces your risk of being hospitalized for the flu and of developing pneumonia, a life-threatening complication. The vaccine also reduces the number of people who can spread the virus, thus increasing what’s called “herd immunity.” Here’s what else you can do to protect yourself—and others—during flu season.
1. Follow the “six-foot rule with anyone who seems sick with a respiratory illness. (If you take public transportation, you may not have this choice, of course.) When someone with the flu coughs, sneezes, or even talks, the virus is expelled via respiratory droplets—and this is the most frequent way people become infected. It’s uncommon for the droplets to travel beyond six feet or so. Wearing a surgical mask won’t protect you from getting infected by flu droplets (only an N95 respirator mask can do that); but if you are sick with the flu, it can help keep you from infecting others.
2. Wash your hands often—after you shake hands, for example, or handle an object someone else was using, such as a computer keyboard or phone. You can either wash with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer (with at least 60 percent alcohol—ethanol, isopropanol, or both).
3. When out in public, try to avoid touching your lips, nose, or eyes, unless you’ve just washed your hands. That’s easier said than done since people tend to touch their faces without being aware of it—an average of 16 times an hour, according to a study done at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health about a decade ago.
4. Get the pneumococcal vaccine if you’re 65 or older, are a smoker, or have a chronic condition such as diabetes, lung or heart disease, asthma, or HIV infection. This reduces mortality from a leading cause of bacterial pneumonia (a major complication of the flu) in older people.
5. If you have flu symptoms, ask your doctor whether you should take a prescription antiviral drug, such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu), zanamivir (Relenza), or baloxavir marboxil (Xofluza). When taken within the first two days of symptoms, they reduce the infection’s duration and severity.
6. Don’t fall for claims that dietary supplements (such as echinacea, Airborne, and vitamin C) or homeopathic remedies (such as Oscillococcinum and nux vomica) can prevent or treat the flu (or any infectious disease). They can’t.
7. If you do get the flu, stay home so you don’t infect others (and remember the six-foot rule there, too). Typically, adults can infect others starting 24 hours before symptoms begin, and they are most contagious for three to five days after. Children and obese people may remain contagious longer. If you have to go out and need to cough or sneeze but have no tissue, do it into your sleeve or the crook of your arm, rather than into your hand or the air.