Unless your idea of a good time is being laid up for days with the headaches, diarrhea, chills, and muscle aches that all come courtesy of the flu, you really don't want to get sick this year. And yet, up to 15% of the country gets the flu on an annual basis. But you don't have to be one of them: Whether you get sick or spread the bug to others may be largely due to your health habits.
Here are 7 simple health behaviors to keep you and your family free from the flu this year.
1. Get a vaccine.
It's the single best way to not get sick, experts say. "No matter how well you wash your hands, you still have to breathe," says Robert Belshe, MD, professor of medicine and pediatrics at the Saint Louis University School of Medicine and director of the vaccine center at Saint Louis University. "If you breathe in flu aerosol particles-which are invisible and can travel as far as 10 feet-you'll likely catch the flu." That's why vaccines are so important: They prime your body to mount a flu-fighting response before you're even exposed.
2. Be obsessed with hand washing.
Even if you are exposed to the flu (by using a germy pen at the office, say), if you clean your hands before you touch your face, there's little chance the germs can reach your eyes, nose, or mouth, the usual ways they enter your system and start wreaking havoc. "Washing hands is enormously effective," says Wayne LaMorte, MD, a professor of epidemiology at the Boston University School of Public Health. One University of Michigan study found that regular hand washing can reduce respiratory illness transmission by more than 20%.
The key is to make hand cleansing a habit. Aside from after a bathroom break, wash your hands with soap and water-or use hand sanitizer-before you eat, after being in crowded public places, like the mall, or if you've been near someone who's sneezing or coughing.
3. Take symptoms seriously.
Most people can weather the flu just fine. But there are exceptions. For example, pregnant women are 4 times more likely than the general population to be hospitalized for the flu. People with underlying chronic conditions-especially diabetes, asthma, or heart, liver, or kidney disease-are also more likely to face flu complications.
While you needn't be a hermit, if you do fall into any of these categories, watch for symptoms (most commonly fever, sore throat, cough, runny nose, sneezing, muscle aches, fatigue/exhaustion-and in some cases, diarrhea, headaches, and a stiff neck) and call your doctor if anything feels off.
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4. Teach your kids to wash well.
"If a child contracts the flu, about 40 to 50% of her family will likely develop clinical flu symptoms," says Dr. LaMorte. One problem is that kids don't wash their hands enough. For example, only 50% of middle and high school students say they wash their hands after using the restroom, according to research from the American Society of Microbiology, let alone before eating or after sharing school supplies with friends. "You don't want to make your kids neurotic," says Allison Aiello, PhD, assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. But enforcing the importance of hand washing can protect your whole family this flu season and beyond.
Teach kids to lather up with soap and water after using the bathroom, after sneezing or coughing, and before every meal and snack. (Stash a bottle of hand sanitizer in their backpacks; it's a good substitute if they can't get to a sink.) If the kids are doing a group project and share materials, tell them to wash afterward. Finally, show your child the right way to sneeze: into a tissue, ideally, or into his sleeve-not his hands.
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