At its best, the flu will sideline you for a week or so in your own home. But at its worst, influenza can lead to secondary bacterial infections or pneumonia. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, both of these conditions can result in hospitalization and even death, especially for those who are at high risk for complications caused by the flu, including elderly people and young children. And neither the best-case or worst-case scenario sounds very appealing to us.
That's why during flu season (which coincides with the fall and winter months), you should take all the precautions possible to ensure you remain healthy. After all, the spread of this common infectious disease is airborne, and the CDC estimates that an infected person can spread the virus to those within 6 feet of them. This is especially concerning right now, when the virus tends to peak.
So far during this flu season, the CDC reports, as many as 36 million people (yes, you read that right) have contracted the flu — and that number is rising. It's why you'll want to take specific steps to try to ensure you don't join the ranks of those infected.
To help you deal with the remainder of flu season, and to give you some expert insights, we've created this handy guide. Ahead, you'll learn some doctor-recommended methods that can help prevent the flu.
First and foremost, get vaccinated
When we spoke with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security's senior scholar, Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, it became overwhelmingly apparent that face masks, sanitizers and other preventive products, while having marginal benefits, have nothing on the flu vaccine. Simply put, don't underestimate the value of a flu shot.
"The biggest misconception is that the flu vaccine doesn't work," Adalja says. "While it is true that the flu shot may not be 100% protective, it does prevent you from the severe complications of flu such as hospitalization, pneumonia and death." These more severe complications also are more common than you might think. According to the CDC, flu has resulted in anywhere from 140,000 to 810,000 hospitalizations per year since 2010, and between 12,000 to 61,000 annual deaths in the same time frame.
Flu shots are easily accessible and can be administered in doctors' offices, health clinics and even your local pharmacy. For instance, CVS Pharmacy offers low- to no-cost flu vaccines that are available to walk-ins or via appointments.
Who should get the flu shot?
The CDC recommends that people 6 months of age or older should get a flu vaccine every season. Exceptions include those who are high risks for serious complications from influenza (which the CDC outlines here). If you're unsure whether or not the flu shot is right for you, seek advice from a doctor or other health care professional.
Do face masks help prevent the flu?
"Masks only provide marginal benefit," Adalja says. The issue, however, is that "most people do not wear them properly," rendering the product pretty much useless. Adalja recommends that health care professionals who might come in contact with infected persons, and who can ensure they are wearing the masks correctly, should opt for these. The CDC agrees with this, stating that "Masks are not usually recommended in non-health care settings [to prevent transmission of the flu]."
For people who aren't health care professionals, it's more beneficial to opt for antibacterial cleansing products as a means to protect themselves from bacteria.
Wash your hands, often
Here's the gross truth about flu germs: They can live on surfaces for upward of 48 hours. For context, the common cold's germs are estimated to live on surfaces for just a few hours. Antibacterial products will help get rid of bacteria that may cause secondary infections, and products with a high alcohol content will also kill viruses like the flu virus. So Adalja says meticulous hand hygiene is a powerful method to prevent the spread of the virus.
And since antibacterial soaps haven't been proven to be any more effective than just regular soap and water, one way to ensure you're killing those germs on your hands is to carry around an effective hand sanitizer.
The CDC recommends alcohol-based hand sanitizers with at least 60% alcohol content if you don't have immediate access to soap and water. Another travel alternative if you can't wash with soap and water is antibacterial hand wipes.
What we're shopping:
Purell Advanced Hand Sanitizer Variety Pack, Pack of 8 ($11.47; amazon.com)
Germ-X Hand Sanitizer Spray ($4.98; amazon.com)
Wet Ones Antibacterial Hands & Face Wipes, Pack of 6 ($19.88; amazon.com)
Don't forget to sanitize your home and office space
Adalja also suggests routinely cleaning surfaces that sick people might interact with, especially if your roommate or family member is sneezing or coughing. This includes shared spaces around the home, including your office desk and even computer keyboard. Keeping disinfecting wipes around can help you quickly sanitize the space around you. One thing you should keep in mind, however, is that it's important to use these wipes correctly and follow the directions.
According to the CDC, sometimes it takes using more than one wipe at a time to ensure the surfaces are damp for the stated length of contact time in order to kill the virus.
What We're Shopping:
Clorox Disinfecting Wipes, Pack of 6 ($29.88; amazon.com)
Love Home and Planet Multi-Purpose Cleaning Wipes, Pack of 4 ($15.96; amazon.com)
Solimo Disinfecting Wipes, Pack of 3 ($8.99; amazon.com)
Mrs. Meyer's Multi-Surface Cleaner ($3.59; amazon.com)
Seventh Generation Disinfectant Spray, Pack of 4 ($21.80; amazon.com)
Stay hydrated at all times, especially if you're feeling under the weather
There are plenty of reasons to stay hydrated throughout the year, but if you're feeling sick, it's even more important to drink water — and lots of it.
When you have the flu, your body tends to expel more water than normal, and you may notice yourself breathing faster and potentially more heavily, which releases more moisture from your body. And if you're suffering from more extreme symptoms, such as vomiting, you can become even more dehydrated. The less water there is in your system, the more exacerbated some of your symptoms can be, says Adalja.
It's why professionals advise drinking a steady stream of water (being careful not to overdo it) when you're sick. Good thing there are plenty of water bottles that can help keep your hydration on track when you're not feeling 100%.
What We're Shopping:
BuildLife Gallon Motivational Water Bottle (starting at $15.96; amazon.com)
Icewater Smart Water Bottle ($24.99, originally $29.99; amazon.com)
Joseph Joseph Tracking Water Bottle ($9.99, originally $12; amazon.com)
Note: The prices above reflect the retailers' listed prices at the time of publication.