I’ve posted a bunch of links on our Facebook page regarding tips for this flu season. Here is just a summary of how the flu works and doesn’t work, and the best science behind preventing and fighting the flu.
How the Flu Virus (Influenza) Works
First and foremost there is ONLY ONE WAY TO GET THE FLU: Get the virus in your eyes and/or nose. Not the mouth, not the ears, not the skin. You can’t get it from kissing people or even eating food that someone has coughed onto (you can get other diseases from that). You don’t get it from being cold or wet. (Increased incidence during the winter – flu season – is only due to people spending more time in close proximity to each other indoors.) The almost universal way that this happens is by getting the virus on your hands and then touching your eyes or nose.
So how does it get on your hands? The flu virus can live on surfaces for up to 48 hours. That means that the grocery cart handle, doorknob, keyboard, or pen that someone coughed on the day before yesterday can transfer the virus to your hands today. A quick rub of a slightly itchy eye and BAM, you’re infected. The very next day, before you are even having symptoms, you are already infectious and can pass the virus on to others. Crafty little buggers aren’t they?
Once you are infected, it usually takes four days to develop the symptoms. That’s right, 4 DAYS AFTER. That means that the guy who was hacking up a lung in the checkout line the day before you developed symptoms did not give you the flu. It was more likely the keypad of the innocent looking ATM that you used four days ago.
Every time you get the flu it is actually a different version. Your body become immune to the specific version once you have it. The problem is that the flu comes in many many versions.
How to Prevent Getting the Flu
Sounds like a losing battle, doesn’t it? Well, not really. I am not advocating psychotically scrubbing public surfaces like grocery carts and pens or only touching doorknobs with your sleeve. No matter what you do, you are pretty much guaranteed to get the virus on your hands, specifically during flu season. There are three things that I recommend to keep from getting the flu:
Get into the habit of not touching your eyes or nose with your fingers
Sure most of us (hopefully) are pretty good about not shoving our fingers up our noses, but the simple eye wipe or nose itch is just as bad. Get into the habit of using a tissue, not just for nose blowing, but even for the most innocent of eye/nose interactions.
For the moments when you must touch your eyes with your bare fingers (putting in contact lenses, using eye drops), scrub your hands clean just before (see below). Don’t have a tissue or hand sanitizer and just can’t stand the itch? Use the back of your hand or arm. They are less likely to have as many germs on them as your fingers.
Clean Your Hands Frequently
Don’t get obsessive compulsive on me but try to get into the habit of regular hand cleaning. Notice that I didn’t say washing. Not everyone has regular access to a sink. If you do, great! Scrub all surfaces of your hands for 20 seconds (we were taught to sing “Yankee Doodle” during hand washing in the hospital). Use whatever soap you have – anti-bacterial soap is no more effective than regular soap.
Otherwise use hand sanitizer. You see them everywhere. Don’t walk past one without taking a free hit. Keep a little one in your cup holder in the car and get in the habit of using it before you start to drive.
Get a Flu Shot
Afraid that the flu vaccine is dangerous or can make you sick? Simple answer, don’t be. The vaccine is made up of dead parts of the virus, essentially the “fingerprint” parts. Your immune system uses this to develop the anti-bodies to prevent the flu from establishing itself (how immunity works). Did you get the flu a week after you got your shot? It takes the vaccine two weeks to become effective. You got the flu from somewhere else.
“Sure,” you say, “but I’d rather just take my chances with the flu.” This isn’t about you you selfish jerk! (Sorry) Over 40,000 people die of the flu in the US alone. These are people who are in a weaker state (elderly, infants, those with chronic diseases like diabetes) or otherwise have a compromised immune system. The more that healthy people like you get vaccinated, the less that an outbreak will spread through the population as a whole. It’s called community (or herd) immunity.
Every year different versions of the flu come out requiring a new vaccine. The one that you got last year will have no effect on this year’s flu. As soon as it comes out, go get the shot. Already had the flu this season? You can still get the shot to prevent the other versions from this season that you haven’t caught yet.
How to Fight the Flu Once You Get It
Get plenty of rest and drink plenty of fluids. That’s it. Cold and flu medications can help with the symptoms, but they do nothing to speed recovery. Anti-biotics are ineffective since they only effect bacteria – both the cold and the flu are viruses. You can take something for the fever if you want (acetaminophen or ibuprofen work best), but unchecked fevers rarely go above 104 degrees. Stay at home. Not just to get the most rest, but to keep from infecting others.
A Word on Supplements
They don’t do anything to prevent or treat the flu. Period. Not vitamin C. Not echinacea. Not any concoction of any of that stuff. They have all been tested every which way for effectiveness and they have NEVER been found to do anything at all. EVER. People who use these products have not been shown to prevent contagion or fight it off any better or faster than those who do not take them. They have been shown to be about $10 poorer than those who don’t take them for some reason.