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How to Fight the Flu This Year

Jennifer Cook

Last year’s flu season was the mildest in the U.S. in three years. But that’s no reason to lower your guard.

This viral illness can bring seven or more days of aches, fever, cough, and headache. The most vulnerable are the very old and the very young. For example, older adults and those with underlying health problems, such as asthma, diabetes, or heart disease, are more likely to have complications such as pneumonia, be hospitalized—or even die.

The most important protection is the annual flu vaccine. Its effectiveness varies, depending on how well-matched it is to the flu strains that end up circulating. But it usually significantly lowers risk, reduces severity should you catch the flu anyway, and, recent research shows, decreases the likelihood of hospitalization by more than 50 percent for those age 50 or older. Here’s what else you need to know about how to fight the flu:

Ask About Alternate Vaccines and Techniques

The nasal spray FluMist, delivered by a quick spray in the nose, has been the recent vaccination of choice for many kids. But it should not be used this flu season because it has not protected against the flu as well as standard flu shots for the past three years, according to a committee of experts that advises the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Instead, opt for a standard flu shot, which was 63 percent effective at preventing the flu in children last year, according to the CDC.

People age 18 to 64 who find injections uncomfortable can ask about getting the vaccine with a smaller needle that only pierces the skin—the traditional shot is injected into the muscle, which can be more painful.

If you are 65 or older, ask your doctor whether you’d benefit from a high-dose vaccine (Fluzone High-Dose), which is four times stronger, or the adjuvanted vaccine (Fluad), which has an additive designed to elicit a more robust immune reaction. As you age, your immune system may become less responsive, and studies show that both of these vaccines are better at preventing flu in this age group than standard flu shots. But research is stronger for the high-dose shot, says William Schaffner, M.D., professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.  

Check Your Timing

Try to get vaccinated before flu season starts, which is usually late October, says Fiona Havers, M.D., M.H.S., a medical officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, because it can take two weeks to fully build up your immunity. But if your timing is off, get the vaccine when you can; the flu usually doesn’t peak until January or February and can circulate for a month or two afterward.

And consider receiving the vaccine in the morning. A recent University of Birmingham study found that vaccines given between 9 and 11 a.m. led to higher levels of protective antibodies to two out of three flu strains than those given between 3 and 5 p.m. The researchers haven’t yet looked at whether a morning shot offers more protection, but “more antibodies in principle relate to better resistance,” says study leader Anna C. Phillips, Ph.D. 

Humidify, Hydrate, and Wash

Dry air helps the flu virus live longer. Consider using a humidifier to keep humidity at 30 to 50 percent, drink plenty of water, and minimize your intake of alcohol, which is dehydrating. Avoid touching your nose and eyes to reduce the chance of transferring any virus you might have on your hands. Wash your hands often with soap and water for 20 seconds (two rounds of “Happy Birthday”). Or use hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol. 

Be Wise About Medications

Ask your doctor for a prescription for an antiviral medication right away if you develop a fever, cough, and body aches and you’re 65 or older, obese, or have a compromised immune system or a chronic health concern. Your pediatrician may recommend antivirals for children who have severe flu or chronic health conditions like asthma, diabetes, or heart or lung disease.

An antiviral medication can shorten the flu by one to three days, ease symptoms, and cut the risk of complications, if you start it within 48 hours of getting sick. Also, rest, keep yourself hydrated, and if you have fever, headache, and achiness, opt for acetaminophen (Tylenol and generic), ibuprofen (Advil and generic), or naproxen (Aleve and generic). Avoid cough suppressants (flu coughs usually go away on their own) and antibiotics, which don’t work for viral infections. In addition, taking antibiotics when they’re unnecessary can contribute to antibiotic-resistant bacteria

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