Even when conditions seem ideal for a flu outbreak across the United States, as was the case this winter, there are tips that can be followed to minimize the chance of getting infected—or at least reduce the severity of symptoms.
What was so special about this winter? Some experts blame the severity of this year’s influenza outbreak on the polar vortex—a low-pressure, Arctic condition that sometimes breaks off and heads for more southern locations. This winter, part of the polar vortex broke off and headed for the northern US. There, it combined with other conditions to result in plunging temperatures across much of the country—the sort of changeable conditions often associated with outbreaks of infectious diseases.
Places where you would expect outbreaks of influenza do not always correspond with wintry conditions. Among the hardest-hit states in recent weeks was Hawaii. Oklahoma has also been hit hard by flu this year, along with Texas, where all four seasons sometimes seem to appear in a single week. Alaskans, meanwhile, have gotten off fairly well this flu season.
Most of us have a general knowledge of just how contagious the flu generally is. Because it can hit most members of a group in short order, it is important to be aware of risks and to act accordingly. Being aware of the causes of flu and colds, the best measures for prevention, and affordable solutions when flu hits are part of the preparation everyone should undergo annually. This is especially important for high-risk individuals.
It’s not uncommon…
More than 200,000 Americans are hospitalized annually with the flu, and about 36,000 die from flu-related causes. People over 55 and especially people of Medicare age are at elevated risk and need to be on their toes throughout flu season, normally from about October to March. December through March are the months with the vast majority of flu cases, with February most often being the worst month of flu season.
While influenza symptoms and common cold symptoms are often similar—with both often characterized by fever, coughing, and sore throat—flu symptoms often develop more quickly. And most of us are familiar with the aches and pains often associated with flu.
Most people recover from flu within a week or two without any need for medical intervention. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) reports, however, that possible complications of flu include pneumonia, bronchitis, and sinus and ear infections. Flu can also make chronic conditions—including asthma, diabetes, and heart disease—worse. While children over 5 and adults not yet past their mid-50s normally do not need to see a doctor if they take adequate precautions, members of the Medicare population are usually advised to seek medical advice when symptoms of flu become apparent. In other words, when to see a doctor about the flu is often determined by age as much as by severity of symptoms.
Children under 5 and adults over 55 are at higher risk than the rest of the population
To underscore the importance of Medicare recipients’ seeking medical advice during flu season, the CDC points out that about 90 percent of flu-related deaths annually in the United States are among people 65 and over. In more general terms, children under 5 and adults over 55 are at higher risk than the rest of the population. Make no mistake about it: The flu can be a cause of death for higher-risk people who are not prepared.
Some of the tips that follow should be no secret—and many are consistent with tips associated with good general health. A diet to reduce risk of flu and colds, for example, is similar to an overall healthy diet. And chances are you’ve come across many of the following tips at one time or another. Yet, with flu taking such a toll annually in the United States, they bear repeating.
- Get vaccinated annually. And try to do it well before flu season begins. This is especially important for higher-risk people, though children under six months old should not be vaccinated. Everyone on Medicare is eligible to get a flu shot once a year. There is no cost if your doctor or other healthcare provider accepts assignment for giving the shot. For most people who want to avoid getting a shot, FluMist, which uses weakened live viruses, is usually a good alternative. It is not recommended, however, for people 50 and over, who are strongly advised to get a flu shot annually. Be aware that side effects from flu shots can include some soreness, redness, or swelling where the shot was given. Other side effects can include low-grade fever and aches, which are usually mild and subside within one or two days. Keep in mind that the risk of the vaccine is minor for nearly everyone while the benefits can be lifesaving. But be sure to consult your doctor before getting a flu shot if you’re allergic to eggs.
- Wash your hands frequently. We’re all aware of the importance of keeping our hands clean, but a tip this simple can be easy to forget. Why is washing so important? It’s because the flu virus is spread via air droplets that escape when people infected with the flu sneeze or cough. Does that mean washing the hands isn’t necessary unless somebody sneezes or coughs in our presence? Far from it. Even talking can release droplets with the virus. Once released, the flu virus can survive outside the body for one to two days. Of course, we have no idea which objects it may settle upon, so during flu season there is a constant threat of touching objects that have come into recent contact with the flu virus. Minimize risk by washing your hands often. This applies doubly to preventing the so-called “stomach flu,” which is not influenza at all but can feel every bit as bad. Perhaps the best cure for stomach flu—or at least a proven preventive measure—is frequent washing of the hands.
- Try not to touch your eyes, nose, and mouth. Your eyes, nose, and mouth provide a direct route to illness, so it is important to keep your hands away from them during flu season. If for some reason you have to rub an eye or itch your nose, be sure to wash your hands first. Even then, be aware that simply spreading what may already be on your face to the nose or mouth area may be all the contact it takes to bring on the flu.
- Always cover your mouth when sneezing or coughing. If you don’t have a strong tissue handy, coughing or sneezing onto a sleeve is often recommended. Of course, this means there is one more thing neither you nor another person should touch. But it is a vast improvement over blocking a sneeze or cough with your hand, which is much more likely to come into contact with other objects.
- Keep objects and surfaces clean and disinfected. At least in your own home and work area, you can greatly reduce the risk of contact with viral contamination by regularly wiping off objects and surfaces with alcohol solutions or disinfectant wipes. Remember that the flu virus can be viable two days after being spread to that countertop, stovetop, or refrigerator handle. Why take a chance on letting it linger there, ready to make your next week or two absolutely miserable?
- Keep a good supply of tissues, disinfectant wipes, and soap on hand. This tip may be as obvious as the first four, but it’s amazing how many times just a little more preparation could have averted trouble. The importance of having plenty of soap, tissues, and disinfectant cleaning products on hand during cold and flu season cannot be overemphasized.
- Limit contact with people who may be infected. It doesn’t get any simpler. Keep your distance from people who seem to have flu symptoms. This will not be possible if you are caring for a family member who has the flu, but during flu season it is important to be aware of your surroundings and who is in them. One sneeze from somebody into the open air of a room you happen to be in may be all it takes to … well, you know the rest.
- Separate from others immediately if you’re the one showing flu symptoms. Cancel that meeting. Put off outings in public areas until there’s no reason to believe you may be contagious. Unfortunately, you can be contagious well before you’re aware of any flu conditions, but you can greatly reduce potential inconvenience and risk to others by heading home as soon as you’re aware of your condition. If you develop symptoms of flue, the best advice is to continue your relative isolation until 24 hours after your fever is gone.
- Be sure to get enough rest. Whether you’ve got the flu or are simply trying to avoid it, getting sufficient rest is vitally important. Your immunity is likely to be reduced if you are not rested, and the same is true of your recuperative powers. Pace yourself during difficult endeavors, and don’t let yourself get run down. It is advisable to keep regular hours during flu season and to stay with a pattern allowing for sufficient rest.
- Rest … but don’t forget to exercise. You probably won’t feel like exercising if flu strikes, and you’ll probably be better off without exercising as you recover. But exercise is an important part of prevention. If you want to get the most out of your immune system, exercise goes hand in hand with rest. And it’s a key component of a healthy lifestyle that can go a long way toward minimizing the risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and various other conditions as well as flu.
- Drink plenty of water. It should be apparent by now that many tips for combatting flu and colds are the very same tips your doctor gives you for enjoying good overall health. Plenty of water is a proven risk-reducer as well as proven minimizer of cold and flu symptoms. You need to stay hydrated in order to stay healthy. If you get tired of water, electrolyte drinks can be a good substitute. Not recommended are coffee, tea, or alcohol, all of which can actually contribute to dehydration.
- Stick to a healthy, well-balanced diet. This is good advice to follow year-round, as a potent flu-fighting diet is pretty much the same diet your doctor may recommend during your annual checkup. Plenty of fruits—especially citrus—and vegetables are good for immunity and recovery. An abundance of vitamins and minerals can increase your chances of staying healthy. Whole grains, nuts, and legumes are also recommended for fending off flu and colds. Fat intake should remain low, and many people swear by garlic as a potent flu-figher.
- If you’re of Medicare age, don’t wait to see your doctor if you develop symptoms. Take the fight to that flu. It’s best to get your doctor’s advice early. Many people are of the mindset that you can do nothing with the flu but wait it out, but that’s far from true. Antiviral drugs, while not a cure for the flu or a cure for colds, can shorten symptoms and minimize complications—and they work best when taken within two days of the onset of illness. Whether your doctor prescribes antivirals or another course of treatment, though, the earlier the better—especially if you’re over 65 and at higher risk. And whatever your doctor advises to get you back in the best of health, your Medicare supplement insurance should make it affordable.
- Breathe easier by using a humidifier. Make sure it is properly cleaned. Consider using an air purifier, too. It’s often said that we need to be more aware of indoor pollutants than those that are outside—and this never rings truer than when we are home recovering from illness. Along the same line, there should never be a trace of tobacco smoke anywhere near a person with a cold or the flu. For some people, it is also advisable to stay away from cleaning solutions or household sprays while recovering from colds or flu.
- Separate family members’ toothbrushes during flu season. Some people choose to change toothbrushes if they show flu symptoms, but this is not necessary. You cannot get sicker by being exposed to your own germs. But it’s best to keep individuals’ toothbrushes in separate, closed cases or containers in order to avoid the spread of germs. Remember, the flu virus can survive for a day or two after leaving the body, and having more than one person’s brush in the same place can bring unwanted consequences.
And a few final tips to consider:
- Follow your grandmother’s advice and gargle. For all the medical advances over the years, here’s something that hasn’t changed much since you were a child. What’s more, a simple salt and warm water solution, with or without a pinch of baking soda, still seems the best option when it comes to reducing inflammation and mucus in the throat.
- Try keeping your head elevated when you’re in bed. A night can seem an eternity to someone who’s congested, but sometimes it takes only a bit of relief to find that window of opportunity for falling asleep. Using an extra pillow or two to help drain sinuses and release pressure can make those nights seem a lot shorter.
- Use a saline spray for short-term relief. A saline spray is a natural remedy many people use for relieving congestion due to flu, colds, and even allergies. For many people, prolonged congestion makes the effects of colds or flu seem worse than they actually are. Even short-term relief provided by saline sprays—of either the store-bought or homemade variety—can make a big difference.
- Don’t overlook over-the-counter medications. But, just as important, don’t depend on them too much. Be aware that any time you combine medications, you may not get the intended result—and you may run into problems. But if you are in generally good health, are not in a higher-risk group, and simply need relief for a single flu symptom, an over-the-counter option may provide the help you need.
Between the end of this flu season and the start of the next one, there is much you can do to get ready. Obvious steps to consider include some of the tips we’ve offered here, such as eating well and getting sufficient exercise and rest. While there is no known cure for flu, it is important to prepare for any flu season by taking advantage of the Medicare services available to you, starting with your annual wellness visit.
From there, your doctor can make any suggestions—made affordable by your Medicare supplement insurance—to ensure you’ll be ready when flu season rolls around. Medigap Plan F, as we’ve often discussed, is just the ticket for ensuring you won’t have to pay out of pocket for any number of doctor visits or preventive measures your doctor says you need.
How did you prepare for the 2013-2014 flu season? Please leave a comment!
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