Your Fool-Proof Guide to Treating and Preventing the Flu

By Kate Morin
1/30/2013 10:29:52 AM

Cover your mouth, disinfect your hands, and hide your children! The 2013 Flu season is off to a nasty (and early) start. While the ubiquitous (and perhaps dreaded) flu shot is the best way to prevent getting sick, no one is completely immune. So it's important for everyone to be well-informed and ready to fight off the plague... err, flu.

Note: This map indicates geographic spread, not the severity of influenza activity. (Image:

Serious InFLUence - The Need-to-Know

The sickness we all know by one term - "the flu" - can actually be caused by a number of different virus strains, each with their own specific traits. This year's most prominent strain is called H3N2, which has been linked to more serious flu infections in the past. But it's not all bad news: The strain is also well matched to this year's flu vaccine. Still, that's not to say the vaccine guarantees immunity. About 10 percent of flu infections this year are being caused by an "influenza B" strain that the vaccine doesn't protect against.

Afraid you've been infected? Flu symptoms typically include: Fever (or just feeling feverish or having chills), cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, fatigue, vomiting, and diarrhea (more common in children). Unfortunately, feeling fine doesn't necessarily mean you're in the clear (and neither is everyone around you). Experts warn it's actually possible for a person to pass the flu to someone else before even knowing they're sick! The infectious period is typically one day before a person starts feeling sniffly, and up to a week after they've become sick.

Victory Over Virus - Your Action Plan

Whether you're already sniffling or just want to prevent getting sick, here are our science-backed tips to help you stay healthy through flu season.

To Prevent Infection

Photo by Marissa Angell

-Get a flu shot, and get it now. The CDC recommends everyone older than 6 months get a flu vaccine, and particularly people older than 65, pregnant women, or anyone with asthma, emphysema, or chronic lung disease (i.e., those at a higher risk of complications if infected). Effectiveness varies, though early estimates for this year's vaccine suggest it's about 62 percent effective at beating infection. The flu shot can be found at many pharmacies or at the doctor's offices, and it's not too late to take it: Experts say January or even early February isn't too late.

-Get some shut-eye. Studies suggest even a few days of not getting enough sleep can weaken the immune system. Get those seven to nine hours a night to keep that army of antibodies as strong as can be!

-Stay away from sick people. (And stay away from healthy people if you're sick.) Most experts believe the flu is spread mainly by little particles put into the air when infected people cough, sneeze, or even just talk. The particles can land in the mouth or nose of a healthy person and infect them, too.

-Keep your hands off your face. Touching an infected surface (such as a door knob, subway turnstile, or library table) and then touching your own mouth, eyes, or nose could transmit and cause sickness.

-Wash your hands. Use soap and warm water. If there isn't a sink nearby, use alcohol-based hand sanitizer, which should help kill some of the creepy crawlies that wind up on our digits.

-Stick to healthy foods. Many of our favorite superfoods are packed with antioxidants and nutrients thought to strengthen immune systems and bolster health. Adequate protein is also important, says Greatist Expert Dr. Doug Kalman. Our immune systems are powered by protein, so maintaining a diet of at least 12 to 15 percent protein is key.

-Work out! Exercise can keep that immune system strong. One study linked regular moderate exercise to decreased risk of infection (when compared to a sedentary state). But that doesn't mean it's a great idea to set out on a 25-mile run: Other research suggests intense exercise can actually increase infection risk, so stick to moderate exercise if you feel the sneezes coming on. And be sure to avoid germs at the gym, too.

-Stop smoking. Smoking can hinder our respiratory systems (duh) and decrease immune response. In fact, one study found that controlling exposure to cigarette smoke is key to reducing the risk of flu infection in adults.

-Stay hydrated. Kalman stresses the importance of avoiding dehydration, since it can negatively impact the immune system. Staying properly hydrated is essential for a number of body functions, including proper transport of nutrients in the body, body temperature regulation, and digestion, and it might also help ease decongestion and dehydration. That said, drinking fluids hasn't been scientifically proven to beat sickness in one swoop, so don't rely on it as a cure-all.

Click through for what to do if you get sick

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