By Penny Takizawa and Catherine Nalesnik, Infection Preventionists, El Camino Hospital
With winter in full swing, it is important to know what steps you can take to protect yourself from winter health risks. While those of us who reside in the Bay Area do not typically have to worry about slipping and falling on icy pavement or risking a heart attack from shoveling snow, we, like others throughout the United States, are still at risk for colds and influenza (flu).
This winter has seen a worse-than-normal flu season, with 47 states reporting widespread infection. More than 6,100 people have been hospitalized for the flu since October, and at least 37 children have died, according to the CDC. While flu season typically begins in October, it can last through March, often peaking around this time. The flu is one of the most easily transmitted viruses, passing from person to person through the air by coughing or sneezing, through contact between people, and between an infected person and common surfaces such as door handles, staircase railings and ATMs. While it is nearly impossible to avoid coming into contact with the flu virus altogether, you can take some simple steps to keep you and your family as healthy as possible:
- Get vaccinated against the flu. Getting a flu vaccine – whether in the form of a shot or nasal spray -- is the best way to protect yourself and your loved ones from the flu virus. Everyone older than six months should be vaccinated, but children, adults over age 50, pregnant women, those with chronic health problems, and caregivers for the young and old are at highest risk for flu complications. Counter to a common misperception, you cannot get the flu from the flu vaccine. If you have not yet gotten your flu shot, it’s not too late, but get it soon.
- Wash your hands. The flu virus can be easily transferred from person to person by touch, so it is important to wash your hands or use hand sanitizer as frequently as possible. Be especially vigilant in high-traffic areas or when shaking hands with lots of people.
- Cover your nose and mouth. When sneezing or coughing, do so in the crook of your arm to avoid releasing the flu virus onto your hands, which could then be transferred to other people or to any number of surfaces.
- Avoid touching your face. Your eyes, nose and mouth serve as pathways for germs to enter your body. It is important to avoid touching your face, if possible.
- Get plenty of sleep and exercise. When you are tired, your immune system is worn down, increasing your chances of getting the flu. Adhering to a healthy diet and exercise, while important all year long, is very important in winter because it helps boost your immune system.
If, despite your best efforts, you experience flu-like symptoms (fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue), stay home until you are well. According to the CDC, the incubation period for flu is 1-4 days (average: 2 days). Adults can be infectious from a day before symptoms begin through 5-10 days after illness onset; young children can be infectious for 10 or more days after onset. Get rest and plenty of fluids and seek appropriate medical attention. Your doctor may prescribe antiviral medications, which are most effective if taken within two days of getting sick.
Besides taking steps to avoid the flu, there are other measures to should consider taking to ensure you and your family stay healthy this winter:
- Dress appropriately for the cold weather. Be sure that children wear several layers of loose-fitting, light, tightly woven clothing under a heavy jacket to keep them warm, plus mittens or gloves, a hat and scarf, as necessary.
- Keep physically active. Although it may be too cold for outdoor sports, you and your family can stay active in the winter by taking up an indoor sport, such as basketball, indoor soccer, indoor flag football or volleyball.
- Keep skin hydrated: Use a mild soap when bathing followed by moisturizer, which you may have to reapply several times throughout the day, in order to avoid dry skin caused by moving between cold dry air outside and warm, dry air inside.
- Be cautious around electric heating sources: Install a carbon monoxide detector in your home if you use a fireplace or other non-electric heating source.
For more information about avoiding winter health risks or to schedule a flu vaccine with your physician. For a free physician referral call 800-216-5556 or visit our Find A Doctor page. Flu vaccinations are also available at the Senior Health Center located at 2660 Grant Road, Suite F, in Mountain View.