The CDC warns that individuals and families should be vaccinated by the end of October each year before the flu starts to spread, as it takes about two weeks after vaccination for antibodies to develop in the body that protect against illness. Luckily, if you have a flexible spending account (FSA), you can get a head start on your cold and flu season preparations without doing damage to your wallet. Here are a few things to know about flu season.
What to know about the flu
The flu is caused by a virus, or rather, a number of different virus strains, and flu viruses are spread through the respiratory system. You can get infected by inhaling droplets from someone infected who is coughing or sneezing or by touching a contaminated surface and then touching your face, particularly your eyes, nose or mouth.
Typical flu symptoms include the following:
- Fever, or feeling feverish without an increased temperature
- Sore throat
- Stuffy or runny nose
- Body or muscle aches
- Diarrhea, especially in children
It can be easy to mistake flu for the common cold, since many of the symptoms are the same. However, watch for the flu triad: muscle aches, feverish feelings and cough. Coughing is an especially tell-tale sign that you have the flu instead of a common cold.
Prepare yourself for flu season with these tips
While you may be more likely to get the flu during flu season, these tips can help you stay prepared year-round.
1. Get your flu shot
Getting the yearly flu vaccine is the best way to protect against flu. It can reduce the risk of illness, the rates of hospitalizations and flu-related deaths. A flu shot may make your arm sore for a few days, but rest assured, the vaccine will not give you the flu as it is made from inactivated influenza viruses.
The flu shot is effective for about six months, so getting vaccinated in October will ensure you’re protected until flu season ends. With rare exceptions, everyone from the age of 6 months on should receive the flu vaccine, according to the CDC. The flu shot is especially important for certain at-risk groups, including pregnant women and the elderly.
2. Prep your medicine cabinet
It’s good to be prepared in case you or a family member come down with the flu, and your medicine cabinet is a great place to start. Create a list of items to replace or replenish, including:
- Fever and pain relievers (acetaminophen, ibuprofen, etc.)
- A multi symptom flu-and-cold medicine
- Cough syrup
- Throat lozenges
3. Check expiration dates
Take a look at your medicine cabinet too. Replace anything that has expired, including pain relievers, decongestants, fever reducers, cough syrups, and antihistamines. Remember to test your thermometer batteries and clean your humidifier as well.
4. Don’t forget other health supplies
Along with medicines, think about the other supplies you’ll need too. Be sure you have a good thermometer and a humidifier for severe congestion may also come in handy. Then focus on the basics, such as tissues, hand sanitizer, and antibacterial soaps so you have plenty on hand for the first sign of illness.
5. Fill your pantry with drinks and comfort foods
Your kitchen is another area to stock while you’re healthy. Fluids are especially important when you are ill as dehydration is often a major reason you feel so lousy. Water with electrolytes is the best choice for rehydrating, however, hot herbal teas can be soothing for sore throats.
But before the flu strikes, you can work to prevent infection with these practical steps:
- Avoid sick people – If you’re less than three feet away from someone coughing or sneezing, you can get infected.
- Don’t touch your face – Touching your face with infected hands quickly spreads flu viruses, so avoid touching your face without washing your hands first.
- Wash your hands – Wash your hands frequently, using the following proper technique. Use warm water and antibacterial soap. Lather for 20 seconds, paying particular attention to your fingers, fingernails and jewelry; this is about the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice. Rinse your hands well and dry them.
- Disinfect – Disinfecting items that get touched a lot, like doorknobs, phones and remote controls, helps stop the spread of viruses.
- Use hand sanitizer – Put bottles of hand sanitizer around your home and in your car so you can quickly and frequently clean your hands.
What To Do if You Get the Flu
If you get sick, taking care of yourself can help minimize discomfort and help you recover more quickly.
- Stay home – Staying home gives you the opportunity to rest, and keeps you from spreading flu virus to others.
- Consider an antiviral drug – Antiviral drugs can help shorten sick time and reduce symptoms, so talk to your doctor about a prescription if you notice flu symptoms.
- Take pain relievers – Over-the-counter medications including acetaminophen and ibuprofen can help reduce fever.
- Rest – Get plenty of rest to help your immune system fight off the infection.
- Drink fluids – It’s easy to get dehydrated when you have the flu, so drink plenty of fluids including water, chicken soup and hot tea. A sports drink or other beverage with electrolytes is a good idea if you have a high fever or are vomiting.
When to Visit a Doctor
If your symptoms linger or get worse, or you’re concerned for other reasons, then visit a doctor. When in doubt, it’s better to seek professional medical advice.