It’s winter, which means that in addition to the puffy coats, hot coffee drinks, and cold weather, we’re also faced with another thing: flu season.
Though you could catch the flu year-round, your likelihood peaks from December to March, according to Jaclyn Tolentino, DO , a physician at Parsley Health. This could be for a host of reasons: more time inside, less vitamin D , and the flu’s ability to spread more readily when it’s chilly, she says.
And while your local drug store probably does a great flu shot campaign, many people still don’t take the flu seriously.
“Probably one of the biggest misconceptions regarding the flu is that it’s a minor illness, like a cold, and it’s not serious,” Tolentino said. “The flu can be extremely dangerous, especially for the elderly, infants and those that have certain pre-existing conditions…like pregnant women, heart conditions, asthma, diabetes, cancer, and HIV.”
Dr. Tolentino also advises you to get the flu shot if it’s appropriate for you. While many people are good candidates for the vaccine, your physician is best equipped to help you decide if it’s right for you this flu season.
In fact, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that somewhere between 19 and 26 million people will contract the flu this season and that up to 25,000 will die from it.
And then there are the recent news headlines filled with the word ‘coronavirus,’ the term being used for a new strain of the large family of viruses of the same name that encompasses everything from the common cold to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndromes (SARS). Since this variant has never been seen before, developments are happening in real time. (For the most up to date information, see the CDC and World Health Organization (WHO) dedicated websites)
First reported in Wuhan, China, this latest outbreak has spread to 25 countries for a total of 492 deaths, according to the WHO’s most updated data as of Feb. 5. It’s made its way to the United States, which currently has 11 confirmed cases, the same data shows. The virus, which can be transmitted between animals and humans, likely started at a seafood market selling wild animals and live game.
Part of coronavirus’ scare factor, so to speak, is that the symptoms of coronavirus look a lot like a mild flu or cold, things like fever, cough, or shortness of breath, Tolentino says. The incubation period is believed to be 2 to 14 days, which means if you’ve contracted the virus, you may begin experiencing symptoms within that time frame, she adds.
The WHO has declared this a “global health emergency,” but those most at risk are those who have recently traveled to Wuhan, China or who have been in contact with someone who has done so. Tolentino is also quick to point out that this declaration is most applicable to the vulnerability of “a country with a weaker or less robust healthcare system that could be ill-equipped to deal with the ramifications of a larger outbreak.”
Practicing general flu prevention should help you steer clear of the coronavirus, based on our “preliminary assumptions on the way the virus spreads,” Tolentino says. So what are the best ways to avoid getting sick from the flu, coronavirus, or even the common cold?
Tolentino suggests a basic regimen of healthy behaviors: wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and carry hand sanitizer for the moments when you can’t access a sink, and avoid touching your eyes, mouth, and nose to limit the risk of exposure to germs your hands may pick up.
“The best way to avoid getting sick is to have a healthy immune system that can fight infections,” says Tolentino. And that starts with a whole foods diet rich in foods with vitamin C, like dark, leafy greens, Omega-3 Fatty Acids, like salmon, flaxseed, walnuts, and chia, and vitamin E, like almonds, beets, asparagus, and avocado.
“Being run-down, tired, or stressed out makes us more susceptible to illness, which is why it’s so critical to go into cold and flu season as healthy as possible,” says Tolentino. She recommends avoiding alcohol and processed sugars, keeping up with a regular exercise routine, drinking lots of water, and getting plenty of rest.
The flu will likely present in one of its common symptoms like fever, cough, sore throat, nasal congestion fatigue or body aches, Tolentino says. If you notice these changes, act quickly.
“The onset of the flu can be very rapid, which is why if you experience one or more of these symptoms, you should refrain from going to work or venturing out in public if possible.”
Tolentino says most cases will resolve themselves with a simple one-two punch of rest and fluids. She recommends salt water gargles using one cup of warm water and a teaspoon of salt and, under the supervision of a physician, the use of anti-inflammatory or immune boosting supplements to combat fever and aches. (Or check out our favorite ways to get over the flu fast .)
However, if your symptoms don’t improve or if your condition begins to deteriorate into things like a fever above 104-degrees, severe muscle pain, seizures or shortness of breath, you should seek medical treatment immediately, she says.
Carly Graf is a San Francisco-based journalist with experience covering health, fitness, social justice, and human rights. She graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism with a graduate degree and a focus in social justice reporting. Her work has been published in the Chicago Reader, YES!, South Side Weekly, and Social Justice News Nexus, Outside Magazine, and Shape. When she's not reporting, she's almost certainly running or playing in the mountains with her dog, Chaco (yes, like the sandal).