As we exchange our bathing suits for winter jackets and sunglasses for gloves, there are easy things we can do to protect our immune system in the fall and winter months of the year the way we protect our bodies from the cold. With the CDC indicating that the flu peaks between the months of December and February, it is wise to take preventative measures before then to ensure that we are able to enjoy all winter festivities without illness.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly transformed the way many people perceive contagious respiratory illnesses, much of the knowledge people have acquired can be applied to the way they approach preventing contracting the flu; with vaccines, standard health practices, and proper care from healthcare practitioners, flu season can be effectively managed.
Before discussing how to prevent the flu, it is crucial to understand what the flu is and how it is contracted. The CDC defines the flu as, “a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat, and sometimes the lungs.” Symptoms range from those as mild as a stuffy nose and fatigue to rather severe, like fever and body aches, ultimately leading to hospitalization and death. Human influenza A and influenza B are the two strains of the flu that are responsible for annual flu seasons.
However, within these denominations of influenza A and B, there are further subtypes and lineages, respectively, that allow for a range of variety in the type of flu that is contracted by individuals. Notably, these types of influenza have generally similar manifestations and can be effectively prevented with vaccination. Children, adults over the age of 65, and individuals who are immunocompromised are at higher risk for complications from the flu and should be especially cognizant of preventative measures.
Given that individuals who contract the flu are contagious starting one day before the emergence of symptoms and up to 5-7 days after such symptoms occur, it is important to minimize points of contamination; with influenza being spread through droplets from those sick with the virus, it is important to cover coughs and sneezes, wash hands regularly, and to social distance or mask up as appropriate.
Perhaps the most effective way to curtail the spread of the flu and one’s qualms regarding contracting the virus would be to get the flu vaccine prior to the start of flu season! The CDC, along with other organizations, like the NIH, have collected data regarding the efficacy of the vaccine each year.
The data indicates that the flu vaccine’s effectiveness varies from year to year, as different strains dominate in different years, requiring scientists to design vaccines based on predictions of which strain will be most prevalent. However, the effectiveness reaches around ranges generally between 40-60% in recent years, indicating a considerable amount of relief can be provided by a quick vaccination appointment. Importantly, the vaccine will help reduce the severity of illness, even if the flu is still contracted.
The likelihood of hospitalization and fatality due to the flu are significantly reduced by receiving the vaccine; a study from the 2019-2020 flu season indicated that the flu vaccine, “prevented 7.52 million illnesses, 3.69 million medical visits, 105,000 hospitalizations, and 6,300 deaths associated with influenza.” Needless to say, these numbers certainly affirm the value of the flu vaccine in protecting one’s health.
So, as you make your adjustments to your wardrobe and home for the winter months, remember to make the adjustments to your health practices to protect yourself from the flu!