The “flu season” occurs in the US every fall and winter. Per the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) the best way to prepare for flu season is to get an annual influenza vaccination.
Today, we’re going to talk about all the ways to prepare for flu season. We’ll cover everything from cough etiquette and hand hygiene to the advent of antiviral drugs. First, let’s get a better understanding of the influenza virus.
Know Your Enemy This Flu Season: The Influenza Virus(es)
The challenge of preparing for flu season is that influenza is not a single virus. It’s an entire family of viruses that mutate rapidly.
A single flu virus can enter a human cell, take over the cell’s functions, and use it to create a new generation of viruses in as little as ten minutes. That’s why the flu hits us hard and fast!
If you think about it, the influenza virus you spread to a family member 48 hours after your first infection can be 288 generations apart from the virus that first made you unwell. It may have undergone many mutations and could be an entirely different virus.
This flu season, know that:
- Like other viruses, antibiotics cannot cure or prevent the flu.
- Prescription antibiotics can, however, reduce the instance of secondary infections related to influenza, like sinus infections (sinusitis) or bacterial pneumonia that might happen after a nasty bout of the flu.
Once you are infected with an influenza virus, there is little to be done other than allow the illness to run its course, drink plenty of fluids, and take some over-the-counter medicines to ease the symptoms.
Anti-viral medicines are coming into the market now that claim to reduce the overall symptoms and “down time” associated with influenza, and they are FDA approved, though they cannot prevent infection.
The Different Strains of Influenza
The CDC says there are four primary strains (families) of influenza: A, B, C and D.
- It is the influenza A and B viruses that cause the flu season in the US.
- Influenza A viruses are the ones that cause flu pandemics – global epidemics of flu.
- Pandemics occur when a new (“novel”) influenza A virus appears and can spread easily between people.
- Type C infections exist but are considered mild.
- Type D viruses are usually known only to exist in cattle, and they do not spread to humans.
Without getting overly technical, the common A-type viruses are divided further into types based on the proteins on the surface of the virus: hemagglutinin (H) and neuraminidase (N). That’s why you hear different flu strains with names like “H1N1” or “H3N2.” Those various protein combinations, plus the virus’ ability to mutate so quickly, make them very challenging to vaccinate against.
The Flu Vaccination: Our Best Guess at an Upcoming Flu Season
Every year, virologists make their best guess at the types of influenza that will be circulating in the upcoming flu season. The vaccine for the 2020 – 21 flu season, for instance, is geared towards H1N1, H3N2, and a few type B influenza strains.
- The CDC says everyone should get a flu shot, especially older people and others who are at risk.
“I had a flu shot, but I still got the flu.”
131 types of influenza currently exist in nature, and virologists can create many more in labs. That means more types of influenza viruses can eventually exist outside the lab. That’s why some people still get sick with a flu, even if they’ve had an influenza vaccination recently.
Now that we’ve covered the science behind vaccinations, let’s talk about some other ways to prepare for the flu season.
Hand Hygiene is Your Best Defense This Flu Season
We are sure you’ve heard a lot about proper hand hygiene. But it bears repeating. The best way to prepare for the flu season is to develop a habit of washing your hands often and thoroughly.
- Use hot water if it’s available. The flu virus’ protein coating is temperature sensitive and is weakened by heat. That’s why the flu season occurs when it’s cold outside.
- Use plenty of soap. The type of soap does not matter that much! Every soap or detergent has germicidal and antiviral actions. Good handwashing is about duration and technique.
- Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds.
- Pay special attention to fingernails, wash between your fingers and wash well above your wrists.
Train your children the right way to wash their hands as well! Practice it with them often, especially before they eat, after they use the restroom, and any other time their hands are visibly soiled.
As part of the routine in our “new normal” many families are making it a practice to wash their hands at once when returning home from anywhere – shopping, school, a playdate… To prepare for flu season, it’s key that we help youngsters understand proper cough etiquette.
Cough and Sneeze Etiquette is Evolving
Disposable tissues (not washable “hankies”) are another key tool to prepare for the flu season. Try to cough or sneeze into a tissue and toss it in the trash at once. Train youngsters to do the same!
Handshake Etiquette is Changing Too
Thanks mostly to the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve become hyper-aware of unneeded social contact. We are learning that traditional handshakes can spread viruses like influenza and strains of Coronavirus.
- In preparation for the flu season, get imaginative, and create some fun new ways to greet and welcome your friends, family and business contacts.
Items to Keep on Hand This Flu Season
Finally, know that no matter how hard we try to prevent it, the flu season will occur every fall and winter. Even if you vaccinate against it, wash your hands often, and toss your tissues, there is still a good chance someone in your home will pick up a flu virus.
Keep these items on hand, all season long:
- Age-appropriate over-the-counter medicines. Infants, young children and bigger kids need different formulas for their age and weight.
- A few thermometers.
- Clear fluid options – stock a few bottles of Ginger Ale, sports drinks like Gatorade, or flavored water. There is no ingredient in these drinks that makes them any more effective for flu treatment, they just taste a little better, so they encourage fluid intake.
Ultimately, the flu season will come. We hope you feel a bit better prepared for it after reading this article.