Is there anything more miserable than being saddled in bed with the flu? The common (and highly contagious) virus can lay you up so bad that even watching a Real Housewives marathon can seem too strenuous. Some slightly-more-scientific signs of influenza: You’ll likely experience fever, body aches/chills, a sore throat, headache and a cough. What’s worse, those symptoms tend to come on suddenly and severely, says Mohamad Fakih, MD, MPH, Senior Medical Director, Ascension Center of Excellence for Antimicrobial Stewardship and Infection Prevention at Ascension St. John Hospital and Medical Center. (Symptoms of a cold, on the other hand, tend to be above-the-neck only and milder.)
From avoiding the flu altogether to getting the vaccine, here’s what docs want you to know at the height of sickness season.
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Flu Facts You Need to Know
1. Prevention is up to you.
The first rule when it comes to the flu? Don’t get the flu. You can decrease your risk with simple measures, like washing your hands and keeping your paws off your face. “You can get the flu through direct contact with someone who has it — like shaking hands, or if someone coughs on you,” says Dr. Fakih. (That means someone has to directly cough on you — it’s not necessary to hold your breath if, say, someone hacks on the other side of the train car.) Your hands are the biggest culprits, though. “You probably don’t realize how often you put your hands in your mouth or touch your face,” he adds.
2. Get the vaccine — no excuses.
The CDC recommends that everyone over age six months get vaccinated. “It’s not just to protect you, but the people around you that have more of a risk of getting extremely sick, like the elderly or pregnant women,” says Dr. Fakih.
3. It’s not too late.
While it’s ideal to get the flu vaccine in early fall for the longest protection, flu season tends to peak in December or January, says Dr. Fakih. That’s when you tend to hear “something’s going around,” because a lot of people will be sick at once. Getting vaccinated at any time throughout the season can help, though. Make your appointment at the doc or head to your local Walgreens or CVS today.
4. But…you may still get the flu.
“If you do get the flu, having the vaccine can lessen how bad it is.”
When you fall sick with the flu despite getting the vaccine, it’s frustrating, no doubt. But know that the vaccine doesn’t 100 percent guarantee you’ll stay well. In fact, in 2016 it was 48 percent effective, says the CDC. That said, here’s the upside: “If you do get the flu, having the vaccine can lessen how bad it is,” says Dr. Fakih. Simply put, your symptoms may not be as severe as they would’ve been had you skipped vaccinating completely. And since the flu can send you straight into misery city and keep you home for four or five days, he says, you need any protection you can get.
5. Exercise totally helps.
Here’s another reason to exercise on the reg: avoiding the office plague du jour. When a group of people participated in an eight-week moderate-intensity exercise program, they missed just 32 days of work due to illness compared to 67 sick days in a control group, reports a 2012 study in the Annals of Family Medicine. So, baby it may be cold outside, but bundle up and fit in that four-miler on Saturday. (Germaphobes, if you hit the gym, just keep these hygiene tips in mind.)
6. Antibiotics, well, don’t.
Running to your doc asking for antibiotics is as effective as taking magic beans and hoping you get better. Even worse: It’s more dangerous. First, antibiotics only work against bacterial infection, whereas the flu is a virus. Second, popping these meds unnecessarily is one reason antibiotic resistance is the dangerous problem it is today. There is a chance that having the flu can make you more susceptible to a secondary bacterial infection like bacterial pneumonia, says Dr. Fakih. One clue that that’s the case? “If you get the flu and start to get a bit better but then relapse and get worse,” he says. See your doc.
7. Seriously, stay home.
It can be hard to stay home when you’ve got to be boss lady at work. But listen carefully: You should really stay put. Not only will it help you get back on your feet faster, you’re less likely to spread it around, too. Because certain symptoms, like coughs, can linger a long time, you don’t have to wait until you’re 100 percent, though. When your fever goes away, you have most doctors’ green light to go back in. “That’s when you’re less likely to ‘shed’ the virus and get others sick,” Dr. Fakih says. Just keep tissues handy and remember to cough and sneeze into your elbow. Oh, and don’t forget the chicken soup today. Science says so.
Originally published November 2016. Updated October 2017.