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Influenza, also known as the flu, is a contagious illness of the upper airway. Every year there is a period of flu outbreaks from late fall to early spring. This is known as the flu season. Between 2017 and 2018, there were over 55,000 cases of the flu in Canada alone. Thousands of people are hospitalized due to the flu and related complications, at an estimate of 12,200 flu-related hospitalizations per year and 3,500 deaths.
The flu is caused by an influenza virus that infects the nose, throat, and sometimes the lungs. Symptoms of influenza range from mild to severe. In healthy individuals, the flu is usually less severe and lasts about a week to ten days. Symptoms might be more severe in vulnerable populations such as children and elderly people, and can be life threatening. Having the flu also increases the risk of other viral or bacterial infections such as pneumonia, an infection of the lungs.
There are a number of precautionary measures that can be taken to help prevent the disease. Here, we will describe five flu prevention tips to help avoid infection.
1. Get vaccinated
The most effective way to prevent seasonal flu is to get a flu vaccination. Flu vaccines are safe and effective and have been used for more than 60 years. Because different influenza strains emerge over time, flu vaccines are updated each year to provide immunity to new strains.
Since the strength of flu vaccines also decrease over time, healthcare providers suggest individuals get a new flu shot annually.
Flu vaccines usually protect against three or four influenza strains. Most vaccines contain inactive forms of the most common influenza strains for a given flu season. Nasal sprays are also available with live viruses that have been weakened and are no longer harmful.
Healthy adults who receive the vaccine are protected against circulating viruses, even if the viruses do not exactly match the vaccine strains. However, flu vaccines can be less effective for the elderly and other vulnerable populations but can reduce the severity of symptoms and lower the risk of other health complications in these groups. Vaccinations are especially important for people at high risk of infection or those in regular contact with at-risk populations.
2. Wash hands regularly
A virus can live on a hard surface for as many as two days, and on hands for up to five minutes. People, pets, and many other objects carry viruses and other germs. They can be picked up by direct contact with an infected area.
Germs cannot be avoided, but regular hand washing will remove germs and prevent them from spreading. Hand washing is an effective way to stay healthy and lower the risk of infection. Hands should be washed with soap and water for at least 20 seconds to remove germs. If soap and water are not available, an alcohol-based sanitizer can be used. Along with other flu prevention tips, people should avoid touching their eyes, nose, or mouth to prevent the virus from entering the body.
3. Avoid close contact
Influenza is highly contagious and spreads quickly, especially during flu season. In addition to physical contact, influenza can be spread through air circulation. When a person carrying the virus coughs or sneezes, they disperse droplets of the virus into the air around them. These droplets can spread up to one meter. People nearby who breathe in the droplets, or touch affected objects, are susceptible to infection.
Airborne transmission is common in crowded areas such as schools. To avoid infection, maintain distance from those who are sick. People who are sick should stay home to prevent spreading the infection to others.
4. Eat a healthy diet
The body’s immune system is complex, and general good health can help ward off illness. Diet is an important factor in overall health. Though there are no specific foods that prevent influenza, some evidence has shown a link between nutritional deficiencies and risk of infection.
A healthy diet includes a variety of foods that provide different vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. Fruits and vegetables can be especially important for immune health. Some research shows that certain nutrients have a role in immune health, including zinc, selenium, iron, and vitamins A, C, and E.
However, more research is needed to confirm how micronutrients affect the human immune response. Eating more than the recommended amount in each food group will not provide additional benefits, and a healthy diet will not protect against infection on its own.
5. Stay active
Regular physical exercise is another way to maintain a healthy lifestyle. As with diet, physical activity enhances overall health and might have benefits for immune function. Exercise has been shown to improve cardiovascular health, control body weight, and prevent a number of diseases. The direct link between exercise and immune function is not completely clear, though the health benefits of exercise can help ensure that body systems are functioning properly.
There are many flu prevention tips that can help prevent illness during flu season. Flu vaccines are the most effective way to prevent illness and should be used in combination with other precautionary measures to lower the risk of infection.
- Government of Canada. Flu (influenza): for health professionals [Internet]. Ottawa: Government of Canada. [updated 2018 Oct 25; cited 2018 Nov 26]. Available from: https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/diseases/flu-influenza/health-professionals.html
- HealthLink BC. Influenza (flu) season [Internet]. Burnaby: HealthLink BC. 2018 [updated 2018 Oct 4; cited 2018 Nov 24]. Available from: https://www.healthlinkbc.ca/health-feature/flu-season
- Infection Prevention and Control Canada. Seasonal influenza, avian influenza and pandemic influenza [Internet]. Winnipeg: IPAC. (unknown date) [cited 2018 Nov 24]. Available from: https://ipac-canada.org/influenza-resources.php
- World Health Organization. Influenza (seasonal) [Internet]. Geneva: WHO. 2018 Nov 6 [cited 2018 Nov 24]. Available from: http://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/influenza-(seasonal)
- HealthLink BC. Hand washing: help stop the spread of germs [Internet]. Burnaby: HealthLink BC. 2018 [updated 2017 Jun; cited 2018 Nov 24]. Available from: https://www.healthlinkbc.ca/healthlinkbc-files/hand-washing
- Harvard Health Publishing. How to boost your immune system [Internet]. Boston: Harvard Medical School. 2014 Sep [updated 2018 Jul 16; cited 2018 Nov 24]. Available from: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/how-to-boost-your-immune-system