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Play Defense Against the Flu

Yes, it's everywhere. Here's how to stay healthy

spinner image Washing hands to avoid flu germs.
The physical friction of rubbing your hands together for at least 20 seconds at a time helps fend off the flu.
Alex Raths/Getty Images

The latest numbers released today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that hospitalizations for the flu are still going up, having already surpassed those seen in the 2009 swine flu epidemic. And while there’s one bright spot — a dip in the number of cases being reported to labs — influenza levels across the country are still “elevated,” officials say. Meaning we’re still in the thick of an especially nasty influenza season. If you’re not OK with taking your chances until, say, late April (May is historically the outer limit of most seasons), there are proven ways to protect yourself. Are they a guarantee against getting sick? No. Could they help you fend off several days of misery, or worse? Doctors say yes.  

Here is the experts’ best flu-avoiding advice — from getting that imperfect but still important flu shot to learning to wash your hands the right way.

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Get obsessive at the sink

First, know that it's not the antibacterial ingredients in liquid soap that help fend off the virus; studies have shown basic bar soap works just as well. And it’s not very hot water, either. Short of boiling temperatures your skin can't tolerate, research shows that cold, lukewarm and hot water are equals in this fight. What actually helps fend off flu is the physical friction of rubbing your hands together for at least 20 seconds at a time — yeah, that’s a while: One study showed that people typically spend a mere six seconds at it. And you need to wash more often than you may consider reasonable in a day. If you followed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for when to lather up and scrub, you'd be at the sink more than a dozen times a day: before and after preparing food, prior to every meal, after every visit to the toilet, of course, but also in about 10 other instances that include handling any garbage or feeding your pet. Where experts say your technique is likely to otherwise break down: skipping the backs of your hands or not washing under your nails, where a high concentration of microbes is found. If you can’t scrub this intently when, say, you’re getting off a train and rushing to a meeting, use hand sanitizer as a stopgap, but check that it contains the 60 percent alcohol that's needed to make it effective at fighting flu germs.

Stop touching your face

Yes, you can get the flu if someone coughs on you or, possibly, if you just stand close to someone who's sick (so says a recent University of Maryland study showing how the tiniest particles of the virus may move through the air, not just through respiratory secretions). But just as often, you catch the flu by your own hand. So guard the entry points and don't scratch your nose, rub your eyes or absentmindedly chew your nails, and be especially watchful of touching possibly contaminated surfaces ... and then touching your nose, mouth or eyes. Germs can live on something like a phone or computer for up to 24 hours (which makes antibacterial wipes for the office a good idea). 

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Seriously, get a flu shot

All season long, CDC experts have continued to emphasize the importance of getting vaccinated — even this late in the game — while recognizing that, yes, the shot offers far from complete protection from the flu. Why bother? Some protection is better than none, especially if you’re in the high-risk group of being 65 or older, or have underlying conditions like diabetes or even heart disease. And a shot can help reduce the severity of whatever case of flu you (still) wind up getting, as two major 2017 studies found. One showed that flu vaccination reduced deaths, intensive care unit admissions and the overall duration of hospitalization stays. Another showed that getting a flu shot significantly reduced a child’s chance of dying from the flu. What’s more, while vaccines are known to be less effective against the strain that’s dominated this season, a late-breaking strain that's been on the rise is more effectively fended off with a flu shot. (And yes, it is possible to get both strains, one after the other.)

Boost your immune system

Keeping your immune system strong could, in theory, help you fend off infections like the flu. And certainly, the better your immune system, the better a flu shot will work. So keep up the healthy habits, such as a plant-heavy diet and regular, moderate exercise. But if you get the virus, the rules change. Doctors say it’s important to avoid thinking you need to “push through” the flu like you might push through your desire to keep sleeping instead of going to the gym. Getting over the respiratory virus, especially if you’re older, means resting and being on guard against complications like pneumonia or even heart attack. One characteristic of recent deaths associated with this year’s flu, as shared by CDC officials, was a sudden downturn in patients who had started to feel noticeably better.

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