by Sunny Sea Gold
photos courtesy Reader’s Digest
Unlike the common cold—which, although miserable, usually doesn’t hurt anyone—influenza can be serious business. Here’s what not to do if you get the flu this year.
It’s not easy to predict how bad an upcoming flu season will be, says Nesochi Okeke-Igbokwe, MD, a physician and health and wellness expert in New York City. “But if the 2018-2019 flu season mirrors the severity of last year’s flu season, then we can definitely anticipate a huge surge in hospitalizations and outpatient doctor visits once the flu season is in full swing,” she says. Although some employers may frown on taking sick days, when it comes to the flu, staying home is really best for everyone. “The influenza virus is … extremely contagious and has the propensity to spread quickly. It’s never a good idea to attempt to mask your flu symptoms and push yourself to go to work or school when you know you are fighting a viral infection—you’re only exposing more people in your community,” Dr. Okeke-Igbokwe points out.
Yes, the flu can be serious—even life-threatening—for certain groups of people, such as children under age five, seniors 65 and older, pregnant women, people in long-term health-care facilities, people with weakened immune systems, and those with underlying medical conditions like asthma, heart disease, or blood disorders, according to the CDC. Unless you fall into one of those categories, you should be able to fight it off on your own. “It’s important to recognize that not everyone who gets the flu will warrant an inpatient hospital admission, and may not experience very severe illness,” says Dr. Okeke-Igbokwe. Hospital emergency rooms can become overcrowded during severe flu seasons, making it tougher for those who really need the care to get it fast.
You definitely want to take it easy when you have the flu, but snuggling up with a loved one isn’t recommended (especially if you’ll be tempted to smooch). “The flu virus is extremely contagious, so make sure, if you contract the flu, that you stay inside and stay away from others in your house,” says Justin Skolnick, DO, an emergency medicine physician and critical-care specialist in Manahawkin, New Jersey. Sometimes just close talking with someone is enough to pass the virus along, since it lives in tiny droplets of moisture expelled by breathing (as well as coughing or sneezing).
You can easily infect the people around you just by flipping on a light switch. “Most people don’t realize the flu virus can survive for up to 24 hours on hard surfaces like door handles, tables, and railings. So making sure to wash your hands is paramount,” says Dr. Skolnick.
There’s nothing like a good movie and soft blanket when you’re sick and miserable. But do your TV watching during the day so that you can toddle off to bed early. “Your immune system needs time to mount a defense,” Ian Tong, MD, chief medical officer at Doctor on Demand, tells Reader’s Digest. “Rest and proper sleep will strengthen your immune system. Sleep as much as possible to give your body a chance to recover.”
You may have been told by a parent or grandparent that an ice bath or cold shower is a good way to quickly lower a fever. But cold water will actually spike your temperature higher, says Patricia Whitley-Williams, MD, division chief of allergy, immunology, and infectious diseases in pediatrics at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. Lukewarm water is best for helping to break fevers, she says.
You may miss your social life, but “if you have influenza, you shouldn’t be overly social with others, even with mild symptoms,” warns Amesh Adalja, MD, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Respiratory droplets containing the virus can travel six to eight feet in the air. What’s more, drinking alcohol can dehydrate you and weaken your immune system, making it harder for your body to fight off the virus.
Many of us automatically reach for a Tylenol (also known as acetaminophen) to soothe body aches and lower a fever. But be careful if you’re taking over-the-counter meds to treat coughing, congestion, or sleeplessness, too. Many of these “multisymptom” products also contain acetaminophen—and doubling up on this medication can lead to liver damage. In a study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, in which 500 people were given a choice of several cold and flu treatments, nearly half would have accidentally “double-dipped” and gotten too high a dose of the pain reliever.
“Staying hydrated with water, decaffeinated tea, sports drinks, and sugar-free drinks is best to help fight dehydration associated with fever,” says Dr. Tong. Although studies are mixed, some experts say that liquids—especially hot liquids like tea and soup—can temporarily thin mucus, helping you feel less congested.
Both the common cold and the flu are caused by viruses, and antibiotics only work for bacterial infections. Not only will the drugs not help your flu, but they could even harm you. Taking antibiotics when you don’t need them can lead bacteria to become resistant, making them harder to kill, according to the CDC. These so-called superbugs can stick around in your body and cause serious infections later on that may require stronger drugs or even a hospital stay.
While light exercise can support your immune system, an intense workout will just make you feel worse. “Living in denial of your illness could do more harm than good,” Dr. Tong says. “Don’t deny yourself sleep or rest. If you love to exercise, dial down the intensity to just walking for a couple of days or until you are feeling better.”
This one may seem obvious, since you already know that tobacco smoke—whether you’re the one smoking or not—damages your lungs. But that goes double when you’re sick. Secondhand smoke irritates the lungs and can make congestion and coughing worse, Neelam Taneja-Uppal, MD, an infectious-disease specialist in New York City, told Everyday Health. Make sure you know the 9 clear signs a cold is coming on—and how to stop it.
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