September 26, 2014 7:47 pm
Flu for you? No, thank you!
Unless your idea of a good time is being laid up for days with the headache, 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.
- 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 Internal Medicine and Pediatrics at the St. Louis University School of Medicine and Director of the vaccine center. Influenza is spread through invisible respiratory droplets, which are everywhere and unavoidable. That’s why vaccines are so important. They prime your body to mount a flu-fighting response before you’re even exposed.
- 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. 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.
- 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.
- 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. 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. 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 into their backpacks as a good substitute. If the kids are doing a group project and share materials, then tell them to wash afterwards. Finally show your child the right way to sneeze: into a tissue, ideally, or into his or her sleeve—not hands.
- Stop nibbling your nails.
When you bite your nails, you’re basically inviting flu germs to infect you. No matter how conscientious you are about hand washing, let’s face it—you can’t park yourself in front of a sink or use hand sanitizer 24-7. That’s where the avoid-unnecessary-touching-your-face rule comes in. Biting your nails increases viral transmission. In doing so, you give germs a more direct route to your mouth and nose, where they enter your body and start making you sick.
- Keep your work area clean.
When was the last time you wiped down your desk or disinfected your phone?
Chances are you don’t remember. About 41% of office workers say they rarely or never disinfect their desks, according to a survey from Clorox in consultation with Corporate Wellness, Inc. To add to the “ick” factor, that’s despite the fact that two-thirds of people say they eat lunch at their desks at least once or twice a week. If your unclean desk harbors germs, you can pick them up (and get sick) while shuffling papers or answering the phone—and especially when you lunch right on top of them. To play it safe this flu season, it is recommended that you use disinfectant spray or wipes. Schedule a standing reminder in your Outlook calendar, desk calendar or phone to wipe down your desk after you eat.
- Be your healthiest self.
The last piece of the flu prevention puzzle: Make sure your immune system is firing on all cylinders. Scientists are still learning exactly how and which healthy habits bolster immunity, but there’s clearly some solid evidence for adopting—and avoiding—certain behaviors. One good-for-you habit is sleep. A recent study found that sleeping 8 hours a night (instead of 7 or fewer) can make you 30%less likely to develop a cold—a sign that sleep plays an important immune-boosting role. A well balanced diet, full of nutrients, may help fortify your immune system too. And avoid unhealthy habits, such as smoking or letting stress get the better of you, which have been linked to decreased immunity.