With winter in full swing, it is important to know what steps to take to protect yourself and your family from winter health risks.
While those of us who reside in the Bay Area do not typically have to worry about slipping and falling on icy pavement or risking a heart attack from shoveling snow, we, like others throughout the United States, are still at risk for colds and flu.
This winter has seen a worse-than-normal flu season, with 47 states reporting widespread infection. More than 6,100 people have been hospitalized for the flu since October, and at least 37 children have died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While flu season typically begins in October, it can last through March, often peaking in February.
The flu is one of the most easily transmitted viruses, passing from person to person through the air via coughing or sneezing, through contact between people and between an infected person and common surfaces such as door handles, staircase railings and ATMs.
Avoiding the flu
While it is nearly impossible to avoid coming into contact with the flu virus altogether, the following steps can help you stay as healthy as possible.
• Get vaccinated. Getting a flu vaccine – whether in the form of a shot or a nasal spray – is the best way to protect yourself from the flu virus. Everyone older than 6 months should be vaccinated, but children, adults over age 50, pregnant women, those with chronic health problems and caregivers for the young and old are at highest risk for flu complications. Counter to a common misperception, you cannot get the flu from the vaccine. If you have not yet gotten your flu shot, it’s not too late, but get it soon.
• Wash your hands. The flu virus can be transferred easily from person to person by touch, so it is important to wash your hands or use hand sanitizer as frequently as possible. Be especially vigilant in high-traffic areas or when shaking hands with many people.
• Cover your nose and mouth. When sneezing or coughing, do so in the crook of your arm to avoid releasing the flu virus onto your hands and therefore transfer it to others or to any number of surfaces.
• Avoid touching your face. Your eyes, nose and mouth serve as pathways for germs to enter your body.
• Get plenty of sleep and exercise. When you are tired, your immune system is worn down, increasing your chances of getting the flu. Adhering to a healthful diet and exercise regimen is especially important in winter because it helps boost the immune system.
If you experience flu-like symptoms (fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue), stay home until you are well.
According to the CDC, the incubation period for flu is one to four days. Adults can be infectious from a day before symptoms begin through five to 10 days after illness onset; young children can be infectious for 10 or more days after onset. Rest, drink plenty of fluids and seek appropriate medical attention.
Beyond the flu
In addition to taking steps to avoid the flu, there are other measures you should consider to ensure that you stay healthy this winter.
• Dress appropriately. Be sure that children wear several layers of loose-fitting, light, tightly woven clothing under a heavy jacket to keep them warm, plus mittens or gloves, a hat and a scarf, as necessary.
• Keep physically active. Although it may be too cold for outdoor sports, stay active in the winter by taking up an indoor sport, such as basketball, indoor soccer, indoor flag football or volleyball.
• Keep skin hydrated. Use a mild soap when bathing followed by moisturizer, which you may have to reapply several times throughout the day, to avoid dry skin.
• Be cautious around electric heating sources. Install a carbon-monoxide detector if you use a fireplace or other nonelectric heating source in the home.
Penny Takizawa and Catherine Nalesnik are infection preventionists at El Camino Hospital. For more information, call (800) 216-5556 or visit www.elcaminohospital.org.