Fall means three things: Sweater weather, pumpkin spice everything, and flu season. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released its recommendations for flu season 2019-2020 and they are already predicting this flu season will be particularly nasty. “In the ER where I work, we have already started seeing people who are testing positive for flu,” says Darria Long Gillespie, M.D., an ER physician and clinical assistant professor at the University of Tennessee College of Medicine.
Here is what you need to know to stay healthy this flu season.
Everything You Need to Know About the Flu Shot
It is easy to make excuses to not get the flu shot: You are healthy. You did not get it last year and never got sick. You wash your hands a lot. But even if you are the healthiest person on the planet who has not gotten sick in years, you are still not immune to the flu. “I compare the flu shot to wearing a seatbelt,” says Gillespie. “It cannot give you a 100 percent guarantee that you will not get ill. But even if you do, it significantly reduces the risks of how sick you will get.”
Every year, health officials work to predict which strains of the flu virus will be the most common and subsequently brew up a batch of vaccines that will help prevent them from spreading. All flu shots work by prompting your body to build up antibodies — aka natural defenses against the flu. This can be done by either injecting an inactive (in other words, dead) form of the flu virus so your body can get familiar with it or by introducing a live but weakened flu virus into your body so your immune cells can learn to attack it. (This is how the nasal spray version of the flu shot works.)
Once you get the shot, it takes about two weeks for the antibodies to build up in your body.
Who should get the flu shot?
The short answer: Almost everyone — save people with severe or life-threatening allergies to the vaccine or any ingredient in it.
“The flu can get anybody, and the flu can make anybody very, very ill. So even though people who are otherwise healthy are at much lower risk, there is always a chance,” says Gillespie. During the 2017-2018 flu season, nearly 3,000 people between the ages of 18 and 49 died from the flu in the United States.
However, those cases are rare. “The reality is the majority of people who get complications and deaths from flu tend to be at the extremes of age, either very young or the older ages,” Gillespie says. “For the rest of us who are healthy, I say get a flu shot for two reasons: One, because the flu is really miserable and even if you do get the flu after you get the flu shot, it is going to be about 40 percent less bad. And also, you do not want to pass it around to any of your loved ones.”
It is especially important to get a flu shot if you are pregnant. Under the best circumstances, the flu can be a pain to deal with, but pregnant women are at a higher risk of the flu causing “severe illness,” according to the CDC. The reason? Pregnancy causes changes in your immune system, heart, and lungs, which can make you more vulnerable to a nasty bug during pregnancy and for the two weeks after giving birth. According to the CDC, getting the flu when you are pregnant is more likely to result in hospitalization, and can also impact the pregnancy. Having the flu during pregnancy can increase your risk of serious complications like early birth, adds Gillespie. Getting the flu shot will help protect you — and the baby. “When you get the flu shot when you are pregnant, the baby gets the antibodies, too,” Gillespie explains.
When should you get the flu shot?
The CDC recommends getting the flu shot ASAP. The end of October is ideal, but if you did not get it then, do it now. Once you get the shot, it takes about two weeks for the antibodies to build up in your body.
But even if you miss your vaccine and end up getting the flu halfway through the season, you should still go in for a flu shot — flu season lasts until March. “There are different strains of the flu and the vaccine covers multiple strains,” explains Gillespie. Each year, the CDC takes into account factors like which strains of the flu are making people the sickest, which strains are spreading the fastest, and which strains respond best to vaccines, in order to make the most effective flu vaccine possible.
In other words, even if you have already gotten one strain, it is possible you could get another strain of the flu. “There is nothing worse than getting the flu twice in a flu season, and it does happen,” says Gillespie.
Healthy Habits to Keep You from Getting Sick
Aside from getting your flu shot, there are two powerful things you can do to stay healthy this season.
Eat a healthy diet
What you eat matters for your immune system — good nutrition can help you ward off the flu or recover faster if you get it. Load your diet with foods rich in nutrients and antioxidants, which help fight disease, says Yasi Ansari, R.D., a national media spokesperson for The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
- Foods rich in vitamin A: Think orange fruits and veggies like carrots, mango, sweet potatoes, and squash. “These foods provide powerful antioxidants that help to fight off disease and protect the immune system,” says Ansari.
- A healthy dose of vitamin C: “Vitamin C is needed for growth and repair of body tissues,” explains Ansari. Stick to actual foods over substances when you can: Red bell peppers, broccoli, oranges, berries, papaya and brussels sprouts are all good sources.
- Probiotics: Probiotics like the kinds found in yogurt or kimchi have been linked to both a healthy gut and a healthy immune system. The research on how they may help you fight illnesses is early but promising: One review of research found that probiotics might specifically help in fighting viral infections like the flu. “Start off by consuming probiotics from natural sources such as yogurts, kefir, sauerkraut, and miso before considering supplementation, as additional research is needed on exact strains and dosing of probiotics to help boost the immune system,” says Ansari.
- Zinc and iron: “Zinc and iron are minerals that can also help to boost the immune system,” says Ansari. Load up on zinc-rich foods like chickpeas, lentils, seeds and nuts, and iron-rich foods like spinach, lentils and animal protein sources.
Wash your hands
Washing your hands during flu season is one of the best ways you can avoid winding up miserable in your sweatpants while all your friends are off drinking pumpkin spice lattes.
Do things the old fashioned way with soap and water whenever you can. “Sanitizers are great, but not all sanitizers kill all the different viruses,” says Gillespie. “If you are in a pinch and do not have access to water, use a hand sanitizer. But otherwise, you are better off washing with warm, sudsy water.”
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