With all the attention focused on the potential for an Avian flu pandemic, it can be easy to miss the regular flu season. At least 200,000 Americans are likely to be hospitalized from influenza this season, which could cause as many as 36,000 deaths due to flu complications.
So how can you stay flu-free?
Be Felix, not Oscar
Like Felix in the show the Odd Couple, it's best to be uptight about personal hygiene. The flu is easily spread in closed quarters like an office or school. Make sure to wash your hands often with soap or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer and avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. In a recent study from the University of Colorado that looked at students living in dorms, those who washed their hands more often had a lower risk of colds and flu.
Vaccinate the Kids First
While flu shots should be given to those most at risk for flu complications such as the elderly, anyone can benefit. But inoculating schoolchildren first may better prevent others from getting the flu. In fact the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends vaccinating all healthy children between 6 months and 5-years-old.
"Children have more influenza in their body when they get sick," says Dr. Kathleen Neuzil, an immunization specialist at PATH, a public health advocacy group. This means that preschoolers are naturals at spreading the flu, not to mention the fact they have the cleanliness habits of, well, a four-year old. "When you have a flu outbreak, it's usually a school that gets closed," says Neuzil.
Don't Stress Out
Chronic stress can undermine the effectiveness of the flu shot. "Our studies showed that people who have lots of stress going on in their lives have poorer responses to the influenza vaccination," says Dr. Vikki Burns of the University of Birmingham in England.
On the other hand, those who experience some brief anxiety, like missing an important meeting because they have to wait in a long line for a flu shot, take better to a vaccine. "Stress is only good for immune function if it is very brief, experienced immediately before vaccination," she says.
At the first signs of you or your child feeling sick, call your boss or child's school and tell them you're staying home because public health experts tell you so. You are most contagious during the first few days of flu. "By staying home, you can protect against inadvertently infecting others," says Neuzil.
The symptoms of the flu are similar to a common cold, but you will generally feel more miserable very quickly if you come down with influenza. The elderly and others who are more at risk for complications should immediately see a doctor if they think they have the flu.
Stock Pile Over-the-Counter Remedies
If you're in good health to begin with, don't worry about hoarding Tamiflu or other antiviral drugs to protect against the seasonal flu. These drugs have to be taken within the first 48 hours of getting the flu to be effective. Even if you get a prescription in time, they will only shorten the symptoms by roughly a day.
Tylenol or Advil can help get you through the worst of the flu, which typically clears up on its own in a week. "If you stockpile Tamiflu, you run the risk that someone who really needs it can't get it," says Neuzil.