Do everything you can to protect yourself during cold and flu season.
woman blowing nose
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Once again, we find ourselves in the thick of flu season. If you've ever been hit with the contagious and crippling illness that can last weeks, you know the importance of avoiding it at all costs. While it's actually possible to come down with the flu year-round, it's far more common during the fall and winter months when the temperatures plummet and people remain in closer quarters than usual. "Typically, in the United States, flu activity begins to increase in October with a peak—the 'height of flu season'—between December and February; however this heightened activity can extend into May, with a prolonged flu season lasting well into spring," says Scott Kaiser, M.D., a board-certified family physician and geriatrician at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California. "Recognizing these patterns to the circulation and spread of these viruses can help you reduce your risk." Here are some ways you can minimize your exposure to the flu and other illnesses when out in public.

First thing's first: Get a flu shot.

Nearly every medical association in the country agrees that getting an annual flu shot is the best way to minimize your chances of getting the flu. "Getting your annual flu shot also helps protect people around you, especially those who are vulnerable to serious illnesses, such as young children, adults over 65, and people with chronic health conditions," adds Jocelyn Konrad, Chief Pharmacy Officer at Rite Aid.

Cover your mouth and nose. 

It might sound simple, but covering your mouth and nose with the upper part of your sleeve or, ideally, a tissue when you cough or sneeze can go a long way in reducing the spreading of the flu and other viruses. "The spreading occurs primarily through 'droplets' produced by people with flu as they cough, sneeze, and talk, so covering up is an important way to reduce this," says Kaiser.

Wash your hands often.

This is another no-brainer, but far too few people wash their hands regularly—even after using the bathroom. "Germs from unwashed hands can get into foods and beverages while people prepare or consume them and can multiply in some types, under certain conditions, and cause illness," says Konrad. "If soap and water are unavailable, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer to kill germs."

Clean and disinfect surfaces. 

You can reduce the risk of illness by cleaning surfaces that droplets land on, especially frequently-touched surfaces, like doorknobs and remotes, and especially when someone is known to be sick, explains Kaiser. "During the height of flu season, in high traffic areas, it may be safe to assume that someone infected has been around—so, all my 'droplet' patrol disinfectors out there, wipe on!" he adds.

Take good care of yourself.

Although not a fail-safe, doing what you can to bolster your immune system will give your body the best chance to fight off any illnesses that come your way. "Take care of your overall health by getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, and managing stress levels," says Julia Blank, M.D., a family medicine physician at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California. "The stronger your immune system is, the more likely you are to avoid or fight off a cold or virus after being exposed to it."

Avoid touching your face after being in a public place. 

When out in public, you don't always have access to a sink or sanitizer. In these instances, be sure not to touch your face, so as not to introduce germs to your body. "Germs spread quickly when a person touches a contaminated surface and then touches their nose, eyes, or mouth because that's how germs get into the body," says Konrad. "Your face is also the most vulnerable area to contract the flu because it's typically more exposed than other body parts."

If possible, stay away from other sick people. 

The flu virus easily spreads from person to person. "If you're unable to avoid sick people, besides getting your flu shot, it's even more important to immediately wash your hands and avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth," says Konrad. "If you begin to feel sick, stay home from work, school, and errands to help prevent spreading the illness to others."


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