The seasonal flu is often thought of as benign—unpleasant, but as harmless as the common cold. The truth about the flu is much more serious. Typical flu symptoms include fever, headaches, muscle and body aches, cough, sneezing, congestion, runny nose, stuffy nose, sore throat, and sometimes stomach symptoms. But many don’t realize that the flu can also cause serious complications such as pneumonia, worsening of existing health conditions—like heart disease and lung disease, hospitalization, and even death.
“During the 2018-2019 flu season, the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] (CDC) estimates that up to 42.9 million people got sick, 647,000 people were hospitalized, and 36,400-61,200 died,” says Kumar Dharmarajan, MD, Chief Scientific Officer at Clover Health. Preventing the flu is paramount both to the individual and the overall population.
The flu shot is the most effective way to prevent both catching and spreading the flu; but cleanliness practices like hand washing, sanitizing surfaces, and overall healthy choices can go a long way to curb the spread of the flu.
How is the flu spread?
Generally, people infected with the flu are contagious one day before they feel sick until five days after getting sick, but this can vary. “According to a University of Michigan study, in some cases, only half of the people infected will actually have symptoms,” Dr. Dharmarajan says. “That means you can be totally unaware that you have the flu, but still have the virus in your body and be able to transmit it to others.”
The virus is spread through droplets of bodily fluids, which someone may come into close contact with through coughs, sneezes, or by touching contaminated surfaces like doorknobs.
Because more than one strain of flu virus circulates each flu season, and those strains change from year to year, you are still vulnerable to catching the flu if you have already had the flu, even recently.
The flu shot is the best defense
The single most important thing individuals can do to fight the spread of the flu, and to protect themselves, is to get the flu shot each and every year. The flu shot is the only precaution that creates an immune response that is specific to the flu virus itself.
“The CDC recommends the flu shot for everyone age 6 months and over,” Dr. Dharmarajan says. “The vaccine is particularly important for populations at higher risk of severe infection, such as young children under the age of 5, adults over 50, pregnant women, and those with chronic conditions.”
“There are even egg-free versions now for those afraid an egg allergy precludes their receiving protection,” says Dr. Joshua Septimus, internal medicine and associate professor of clinical medicine at Houston Methodist Hospital.
Dr. Septimus stresses the importance of flu shots for people who are pregnant. “Pregnant women are at a very high risk of deadly complications of the flu,” says Dr. Septimus. “All pregnant women and their loved ones should make flu vaccination a priority.” Getting the flu vaccine while pregnant can even protect babies in the months after they are born, when they are too young to be vaccinated.
RELATED: Everything you should know about getting the flu shot while pregnant
The flu shot can vary in effectiveness from year to year and from person to person, but the overall effectiveness of the shot is between 40% and 60% when most circulating flu viruses are well-matched to the vaccine. Even though the shot is not 100% effective, it’s still very important to get the flu shot.
The flu shot not only prevents many individuals from getting the flu, but it also prevents anyone that person would have infected from becoming ill, and so on. The fewer people that get sick, the less it spreads, a phenomenon called herd immunity.
The vaccine also helps to protect against the serious complications of the flu, even if a vaccinated person does become infected. During the flu season of 2016-2017, the flu shot is estimated to have prevented 5.3 million influenza illnesses, 2.6 million influenza-associated medical visits, and 85,000 influenza-associated hospitalizations. The flu vaccine saves children’s lives and has been shown to reduce flu-related PICU stays for children by 74%.
There are two types of flu shots: Trivalent (three component) and Quadrivalent (four component), with several sub-types in each, depending on the needs of the patient.
You should get your flu shot by the end of October each year, but because it takes two weeks to become effective after the injection, earlier is better. “If you wait until others in your community start coming down with the flu, you’ll leave yourself vulnerable during the window between the time you get the shot and the time the protection kicks in,” Dr. Dharmarajan explains.
Even if you missed the October “deadline,” it’s not too late to get vaccinated. The flu season runs into May, so it’s better late than never.
While there is a lot of misinformation out there about the flu shot, the truth is that it is a safe and effective way to prevent the flu and the complications of the flu.
RELATED: 7 common myths about the flu shot debunked
How else can we prevent the flu?
While the flu shot is the number one defense, there are other measures we can take to slow or prevent the spread of the flu.
- Stay home while sick. Staying away from other people won’t do much for your own illness, but it’s hugely important for flu prevention. Even if you feel well enough to work or run errands, you could infect someone who is at a higher risk of serious flu complications. The same goes for keeping kids home from school while sick. Visit For Jude For Everyone to see why keeping sick kids home from school is so important.
- Wash your hands. “Wash your hands, more than you think you need to,” Dr. Dharmarajan advises. Use soap and warm water, rub vigorously for at least 20 seconds (try singing a children’s song like “Mary Had a Little Lamb” or “Happy Birthday”—twice) and dry your hands. If possible, use a paper towel to turn off the tap. Frequent handwashing is important whether or not you are sick. Carry alcohol-based hand sanitizer for times in which handwashing is not possible.
- Cover coughs and sneezes. Coughs and sneezes can cause droplets to travel over 20 feet, and the droplets can stay suspended in the air for up to 10 minutes. Anyone in the “line of fire,” or who touches anything that is, will be exposed to flu germs. Instead of covering your mouth with your hands, use the inside of your elbow or your upper sleeve.
- Avoid touching your face. You can’t wash your hands every five seconds, so prevent any germs you may have on your hand from getting inside your body by keeping your hands away from your face. It’s a hard habit to break, but worth it!
- Keep communal areas clean. Phones, doorknobs, and anything multiple people in your area use should be cleaned with disinfectant regularly.
- Get enough sleep. While this won’t directly prevent the flu, getting enough sleep is important to your overall good health, which in turn helps your immune system fight off the flu virus. Aim for eight hours of quality sleep per night.
- Drink plenty of fluids, eat well, and stay active. As with sleep, this is not a direct defense against the flu, but rather helps keep your body healthy overall and better able to handle viruses it comes across.
- Stay away from smoking. “Smoking not only makes you more likely to catch the flu, it makes it harder to fight off the virus once you’re sick,” Dr. Dharmarajan says. “Even secondhand smoke can worsen your congestion and cough during the flu.”
Staying healthy when someone in the house is sick
Staying home while sick is crucial—but what happens if someone in your house is sick, and you aren’t (and don’t want to be)? It’s time to set some house rules for sickness.
- Keep the sick person as isolated as possible. If they can have a room, and even a bathroom, to themselves, that reduces the risk to others.
- Wear a mask. Either the person who is sick can wear a mask, or the rest of the household can. Or both, if you want to be extra cautious!
- Have single-use tissues and towels. No sharing! Have a no-touch trash can for used tissues.
- Disinfect surfaces. Make sure to disinfect surfaces—don’t just “clean.” Cleaning will take care of dirt, but only disinfecting will kill viruses. Use a solution that specifies on the label that it kills influenza viruses. Alternatively, you can mix ¼ cup of chlorine bleach into one gallon of hot water. Some places to pay close attention to include:
- door knobs
- light switches
- chair backs
- any other surfaces people frequently touch
- Follow general guidelines for preventing the spread of the flu. Ways to prevent the spread of the flu outside of the homework within the home as well.
Using natural and home remedies
“Unfortunately, Vitamin C and other natural remedies haven’t been definitively shown to prevent the flu,” Dr. Dharmarajan says. “Eating nutritious and whole foods, exercising, avoiding smoking, and staying generally healthy is always important, but make sure to get a flu shot as well.”
Dr. Septimus is more direct: “I recommend against them,” he says.
Be wary of places advertising “flu shot alternatives” or other products that claim to directly prevent the flu. While keeping your body in good shape might help you fight off illnesses in general, these products are usually not effective enough immune boosters, and none of them fight the flu specifically.
Some natural remedies, such as honey for a sore throat or ginger tea for an upset stomach, can help with symptoms of the flu, but the best way to prevent the flu is still the flu shot, practicing proper hygiene, and adopting an overall healthy lifestyle.
Medications that help fight the flu
While there are no cures for the flu, Nodar Janas, MD, medical director of Upper East Side Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in New York, says there are a couple of antiviral medications that could help. “If administered in a timely manner, [they] can help decrease the severity and shorten the length of flu symptoms,” he says. These antiviral drugs include Tamiflu and Relenza Diskhaler.
While they won’t help the body fight off the flu virus, some over-the-counter medications can help manage the symptoms that come with the flu. Some medications that may help you feel better include Vicks Nyquil/Dayquil Cold and Flu, Theraflu Flu and Sore Throat, and Vicks Sinex Severe Decongest. (You can use a SingleCare card to save on these drugs, but your health care provider will need to write a prescription first.) These medications can have side-effects, and may interact with other medications, so make sure you read the label and speak to your pharmacist before starting them.
The flu is awful and scary, there’s no way to deny that. Thankfully, by using common-sense hygiene practices, working to keep our bodies as healthy as possible, and making sure we get the flu shot every single year, we can help to keep the flu at bay. Now go wash your hands!