Have you gotten your flu shot yet? You should! Even if your plans from now until who-knows-when include staying at home, staying in bed, and staying your PJs, you NEED to protect yourself. That's because the symptoms for the flu are super close to those of COVID-19 (heard of her?). And if you get your flu shot, it's easier for your doctor to determine if you have the flu or COVID. In these times, that's clutch.
Sometimes the flu (or influenza) will leave you stuck in bed for a couple of days, though, at its worst, it can cause pneumonia or a potentially fatal bacterial infection, especially in pregnant women and people who have asthma or other chronic conditions, per the CDC.
Even if you think the flu is NBD because you’re healthy right now, you’re wrong. “The flu is NOT the same as the common cold,” says Kavita Shanker-Patel, MD, family medicine practitioner at Northwestern Medicine’s Central DuPage Hospital. “You must take extra precautions for prevention.”
But getting a flu shot isn't the only thing you can do to avoid getting the flu. (Sidenote: If throwing shade at anyone who sniffles in my general direction could protect me, I’d be invincible.)
Everything from where you go to what you eat plays into your fate. Once you’re exposed to the flu, avoiding it means HAZMAT suiting your entire life. Luckily, even if you’re already infected (sorry…), you can totally heal up quickly if you get your act together.
Consider the following tips your complete arsenal for preventing the flu and bouncing back faster if you’re already sick.
1. Indulge your inner introvert.
You should be doing this anyway (ahem, COVID), but avoiding crowds as much as possible during flu season (aka now!) is a legit way to keep yourself from getting infected, says Dr. Shanker-Patel. “If you can limit your exposure to large groups of people, then you can reduce your risk of getting the flu,” she says. The flu spreads fast AF in confined spaces.
2. If you can, WFH when you feel meh.
Again, this might already be a thing you're doing this very second, but if your job requires you to work outside your home regardless of what's going on in the world, try to take just one day off when you're feeling under the weather. “Though not everyone has this opportunity, if you can work from home, that’s always a good option—especially if you’re already feeling a little under the weather,” says Dr. Caroline Sullivan, a primary care provider at Columbia University School of Nursing.
If you’re afraid your boss will be mad, knock that off. “Even just one day of rest at home can go a long way in helping you get better,” Sullivan says. So, yeah, weigh a single work-from-home or sick day against an entire week of complete lifelessness should the flu really knock you out and get back to me.
3. Get that (vitamin) D.
Research, like this 2006 study published by Cambridge University Press, suggests that low levels of vitamin D (one downside of working from home the whole day) can impact the immune system and increase the chances that you'll get the flu, says dietitian Jenna Appel, RD.
That’s why Appel recommends making sure you get your vitamin D needs (600 IU or 15 micrograms a day, per the National Institutes of Health). You can take a supplement, or just eat more fatty fish like salmon, fortified OJ and milk, as well as egg yolks, and mushrooms.
4. Eat plenty of produce and probiotics.
Eating an immune system-friendly diet goes a long way during flu season, suggests Appel. Focus your eats on antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables (like blueberries, tomatoes, and sweet potatoes), which basically strengthen your body’s inner flu shield. Your goal: Make sure there’s something rainbow-colored (that’s not a Skittle) on your plate every time you eat.
Loading up on probiotic-rich fermented foods—like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and tempeh—can also support your immune system by nourishing your gut, Appel says. Aim to put something fermented in your mouth every single day.
5. Get. Your. Flu shot.
Oh, I'm sorry, did I say this already?! OK, well I'm going to say it again. When you get a flu vaccination, your body releases antibodies that can protect you from the most common virus strains in any given season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
"You might still get other strains of the flu despite vaccination," he says. "However, it's less likely to be severe, and you're less likely to develop pneumonia, be put on a ventilator, visit the intensive-care unit, or die from the flu after you've been vaccinated," he says.
Although it's best to get your shot before flu season peaks, according to the CDC, it's not too late to get one now,
6. Stay at least three feet away from anyone who's coughing or sneezing.
Ideally, you're six feet away from anyone at all times, even if you're wearing a mask. Like COVID, the flu virus is a parasite that hangs around in respiratory secretions that travel through the air in small droplets; when projected by a cough or sneeze, they can fly through the air before gravity takes over, Dr. Adalja says. A flu patient who's actively projecting these droplets by coughing or sneezing can contaminate the air you breathe. There's no practical way to assess whether someone has a benign nose tickle, a cold, or the flu, so it's best to keep your distance from anyone with suspicious symptoms.
7. Keep your hands away from your face.
Simply touching a contaminated surface won't give you the flu, since the virus doesn't infect the skin—it has to make it to a mucosal membrane in your mouth or nose to cause an infection. But(also like COVID) you risk getting sick when you touch an infected surface and transfer the virus to your face.
8. Clean communal surfaces at least once a day.
The flu virus can remain viable without a host for about 24 hours, according to Dr. Adalja. "In general, all household surfaces are going to be contaminated with the flu virus if you're living with someone who has the flu," he says. He adds that about 25 percent of people who become infected experience no symptoms but can still be contagious. It's why you should wipe down phone chargers, fridge handles, and light switches with a standard household cleaner at least once a day, even if no one in your household is sick. Before you drop a paycheck on cleaning supplies, remember that "going above and beyond to clean surfaces still isn't an iron-clad way to avoid the flu, because there are so many opportunities for the virus to spread directly between humans in a shared environment," Dr. Adalja says.
9. Wear surgical gloves when caring for someone who's sick.
In clinical environments, doctors and nurses wear disposable surgical gloves and masks to avoid contact with contaminated secretions and surfaces. If you're not prepared to suit up at home, frequent hand-washing is your next best bet when you're around anyone with the flu.
10. Encourage others to trash their own tissues.
This way, you can avoid direct contact with a sick person's respiratory secretions, which can carry the flu virus, according to Dr. Adalja.
11. Keep your lips off infected partners.
The flu virus is contagious beginning the day before you experience your first symptom, any time a fever is present, and up to a week after the last symptom subsides. It's carried in saliva, so kissing a flu carrier's mouth or face is risky during this time.
12. Give sick sleeping partners their own pillow, and have them sleep on their own side.
Like other communal surfaces, blankets and pillows, particularly in shared beds, can host the flu virus for about 24 hours. Although it's best to avoid sharing a bed with an infected partner — particularly when he or she is coughing or sneezing — you can avoid infection by keeping to yourself in bed. And change the linens if your partner steals your pillow.
In the same vein, if flu-infected roommates take up residence on the couch, have them use their own pillows and blankets, or avoid snuggling up in the same spot for 24 hours.
13. Keep the windows closed.
Although cracking a window next to your sneezing friend/housemate might give you peace of mind, since theoretically, it would help clear out infected air, chances are it won't do much. "Unless someone literally sticks their head out the window or moves out to the fire escape, opening the window won't have any measurable benefits once the flu virus is in the air," Dr. Adalja says.
FWIW, the flu virus's outer coating hardens in cold, which helps it remain viable while passing between people, according to researchers of a 2008 study published in Nature Chemical Biology.
14. Store your toothbrush out of sight.
Otherwise, a communal toothbrush holder contaminated by an infected person's toothbrush could transfer germs to your toothbrush, or an infected roommate's rogue sneeze can contaminate your bristles with the flu virus, which can be transferred to your mouth, Dr. Adalja says.
15. Avoid sharing food with infected people.
Although food doesn't play a major role in spreading influenza, sharing a plate or eating utensils with someone who's infected can potentially make you ill, says Dr. Adalja.
16. Do your own dishes.
"It's very difficult to completely avoid flu exposure when you're living in the same household as someone who is infected," Dr. Adalja says. But taking on extra chores, like emptying the dishwasher, can keep an infected roommate from planting his or her virus on utensils and glasses that end up in your mouth.
17. Get sufficient sleep.
"Having adequate sleep is a good habit for optimal immune system functioning and to prevent respiratory viruses like the flu," Dr. Adalja says. The average adult should clock between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
People who report psychological stress are less likely to develop protective antibodies in response to the flu vaccine, according to a 2009 review of 13 existing studies. "It's important not to become completely obsessed and compulsive," Dr. Adalja says. "During a flu season like this, when the virus is spreading among humans in every type of environment and community, you're going to be exposed to it — even if you live in an overly sterile environment."
"Even the perfect environment won't be a sterile bomb shelter against flu," says Dr. Adalja, who suggests seeing a doctor if you develop any flu symptoms and are considered at high risk for complications, or severe flu symptoms such as an unrelenting fever or shortness of breath. "The biggest thing is to get the flu vaccine," he says. "Everything else is extra."
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.