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How to reduce your risk of flu

The season of coughs and colds is back – but how do we shoo the flu?

Though there are no sure-fire ways to avoid the flu entirely, there are certainly some steps you can take to reduce your risk this season.

What is the flu?

Flu is a common infectious viral illness spread by coughs and sneezes that primarily affects the nose, throat and sometimes the lungs. It can be very unpleasant—in severe cases, it can be fatal—but most people get better within a week.

What’s the difference between a cold and the flu?

Colds and the flu are contagious illnesses caused by different viruses. Only influenza viruses cause the flu. Whereas rhinoviruses, parainfluenza, and coronaviruses (not to be confused with COVID-19) can cause a cold.

Generally, flu symptoms are more severe and rapid in onset than a cold and can lead to complications such as pneumonia. Instead, colds tend to cause a runny or stuffy nose and sneezing. There is some crossover, and sometimes it can be hard to differentiate the two based on symptoms alone.

Symptoms of flu:

  • Fever and chills
  • Body aches
  • Exhaustion
  • Dry cough and sore throat
  • Headache
  • Loss of appetite
  • Diarrhoea, nausea or vomiting [1]

How can I reduce my risk of contracting the flu?

  1. Get the flu vaccine

According to the UK government, the flu vaccine provides the best possible protection against flu [2].

Fewer people will have built a natural immunity during the COVID-19 pandemic, making the vaccine particularly important. Research also shows contracting both flu and COVID-19 simultaneously is more likely to make you seriously ill. It is safe to have the flu vaccine and COVID-19 vaccine at the same time [3].

The flu vaccine is free on the NHS for people who:

  • are 50 or over
  • work as frontline healthcare or social workers
  • are pregnant
  • have serious long-term health conditions
  • are care-home residents
  • receive a carer’s allowance or care for someone that is more at risk
  • live with someone that is immunocompromised

How effective is the flu vaccine?

Different strains of flu circulate each year, and a new vaccine is prepared to deal with them. Because the virus frequently mutates, no vaccine will ever be 100% effective.

When a vaccine matches the circulating strain of flu well, it can reduce the risk of flu by 40 – 60%. Even if a vaccine is not well-matched and you contract the flu, it can still be beneficial by reducing symptom severity and protecting those around you [3].

For more information on the flu vaccine, visit the NHS website.

  1. Wash hands regularly

Flu viruses spread mainly via droplets that form when coughing, sneezing, and talking. These droplets can land in the mouths and noses of other people or stick to surfaces. A person may contract the flu by touching a contaminated surface and then their face.

You can reduce your risk of contracting the flu by regularly cleaning your hands. Thorough handwashing with soap and warm water is the best method. If this is not available, you can use an alcohol-based hand gel, which is also proven to be highly effective [4].

To reduce spread to others, cover your mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, ideally with a tissue, dispose of it, then wash your hands.

  1. Disinfect surfaces

Flu viruses can survive on surfaces for many hours afterwards, potentially up to two days, particularly on non-porous surfaces [5,6]. These include door handles, light switches, taps, countertops, keyboards, remote controls, and any other hard surfaces that you may touch.

Fortunately, you can disinfect them with antimicrobial wipes and sprays. Disinfecting these areas can kill the virus and significantly reduce transmission.

  1. Get plenty of sleep

Sleep plays a powerful role in supporting the immune system. Chronic sleep deprivation can trigger inflammation within the body and lead to reduced white blood cell activity (our natural disease-fighting cells), leaving us much more susceptible to infection [7]. It can also weaken the antibody response to the flu vaccine [8], so getting enough shut-eye is vital.

Most adults need about six to nine hours of sleep each night to feel well-rested [9]. The following activities can help you establish a healthy sleep routine and improve the quality of your sleep:

  • Aim for regular sleeping hours – Establishing a routine will help your body maintain its circadian rhythm.
  • Cut down on caffeine – Caffeine interferes with the process of falling asleep. Try switching to herbal tea.
  • Try to relax before bed – Reading a book, doing yoga, or having a warm bath can help your mind switch off.
  • Exercise regularly – Moderate exercise can be beneficial to sleep. But avoid vigorous exercise too close to bedtime as this may have the opposite effect.
  • Avoid artificial light – Try to steer clear of TV screens and mobile phones one hour before bed.

If you’re having trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep, The Sleep Charity provides excellent advice and contacts to help you sleep better.

  1. Enjoy a balanced diet

Our modern-day Western diet, rich in refined sugars, salt, and saturated fats, can significantly affect the immune system [10]. Making sure your meals are balanced by including plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables and limiting your alcohol intake and saturated fats can help you stay healthy.

Certain micronutrients, such as zinc, iron, folate, and vitamins A, B6, C, D, and E, help your immune system function normally [11]. Although there’s certainly no replacement for a healthy lifestyle, supplements can give you a boost where you might otherwise be finding it difficult to meet your nutritional needs. You can check your Vitamin D levels at home with our Vitamin D (25 OH) Blood Test

  1. Exercise regularly and find time to relax

Regular, moderate physical activity has a positive effect on immunity, which, over time, can prevent you from falling ill with a cold or the flu [12]. Government advice is to aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week [13].

Bear in mind that highly strenuous bouts of prolonged exercise (over 90 minutes) can have the opposite effect and instead leave you more susceptible to infection [12].

Just as damaging as physical stress is emotional stress. Feeling chronically stressed can lead to many different health problems, including a depressed immune system. Identifying strategies that help you relax, such as meditating, breathing techniques, yoga, and reading, can help your body rest and reset.

Does wearing a mask prevent me from getting the flu?

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the introduction of face coverings, it is not unreasonable to assume that this would extend to other respiratory viruses, including the flu.

Some data shows that wearing a face covering, including uncertified masks such as surgical masks or homemade masks, may reduce aerosol transmission of the flu [14]. But other studies indicate there is not enough robust data to establish a conclusive relationship between mask use and protection against the flu [15]. The bottom line is that whether wearing a mask or not, this should not be in place of other preventative measures such as the flu vaccine or good hand hygiene.

You can visit the government website to see the current face mask recommendations concerning COVID-19.

Say shoo to the flu

Taking certain steps can reduce your risk of flu this winter. Getting the flu vaccine and making sure you have good hand hygiene remain the most effective ways of avoiding infection. Optimising your immunity through a balanced diet, exercise and plenty of sleep will boost your body’s defences and protect you not just against the flu but other coughs and colds too.

Related Tests

Vitamin D - Ensure your levels are topped up this winter with our Vitamin D (25 OH) Blood Test. Having low levels of vitamin D can affect your immunity.


References

  1. NHS UK. 2021. Flu. [online] Available at: <https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/flu/> [Accessed 28 September 2021].
  2. UK. 2021. Annual flu programme. [online] Available at: <https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/annual-flu-programme> [Accessed 21 October 2021].
  3. NHS UK. 2021. Flu vaccine. [online] Available at: <https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vaccinations/flu-influenza-vaccine/> [Accessed 28 September 2021].
  4. Grayson, M., Melvani, S., Druce, J., Barr, I., Ballard, S., Johnson, P., Mastorakos, T. and Birch, C., 2009. Efficacy of Soap and Water and Alcohol‐Based Hand‐Rub Preparations against Live H1N1 Influenza Virus on the Hands of Human Volunteers. Clinical Infectious Diseases, 48(3), pp.285-291.
  5. Greatorex JS, Digard P, Curran MD, Moynihan R, Wensley H, et al. 2011. Survival of Influenza A(H1N1) on Materials Found in Households: Implications for Infection Control. PLOS ONE 6(11): e27932. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0027932
  6. 2021. How To Clean and Disinfect Schools To Help Slow the Spread of Flu | CDC. [online] Available at: <https://www.cdc.gov/flu/school/cleaning.htm> [Accessed 28 September 2021].
  7. Cohen, S., Doyle, W., Alper, C., Janicki-Deverts, D. and Turner, R., 2009. Sleep Habits and Susceptibility to the Common Cold. Archives of Internal Medicine, 169(1), p.62.
  8. Spiegel K, Sheridan JF, Van Cauter E. 2002. Effect of sleep deprivation on response to immunization. JAMA. 2002 Sep 25;288(12):1471-2. doi: 10.1001/jama.288.12.1471-a. PMID: 12243633.
  9. 2021. How to get to sleep. [online] Available at: <https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/sleep-and-tiredness/how-to-get-to-sleep/#:~:text=Most%20adults%20need%20between%206,the%20same%20time%20every%20day.> [Accessed 21 October 2021].
  10. Myles, I.A. Fast food fever: reviewing the impacts of the Western diet on immunity. Nutr J13, 61 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1186/1475-2891-13-61
  11. Michael Gleeson, David C Nieman & Bente K Pedersen (2004) Exercise, nutrition and immune function, Journal of Sports Sciences, 22:1, 115-125, DOI: 1080/0264041031000140590
  12. Nieman, D., 2007. Psychoneuroimmunology. 4th ed. Amsterdam: Elsevier/Academic Press, pp.661-673.
  13. UK Chief Medical Officers. 2021. UK Chief Medical Officers' Physical Activity Guidelines. Department of Health and Social Care [online] Available at: <https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/832868/uk-chief-medical-officers-physical-activity-guidelines.pdf> [Accessed 12 October 2021].
  14. Brienen NC, Timen A, Wallinga J, van Steenbergen JE, Teunis PF. The effect of mask use on the spread of influenza during a pandemic. Risk Anal. 2010 Aug;30(8):1210-8. doi: 10.1111/j.1539-6924.2010.01428.x. Epub 2010 May 20. PMID: 20497389; PMCID: PMC7169241.
  15. Bin‐Reza et al.(2012) The use of masks and respirators to prevent transmission of influenza: a systematic review of the scientific evidence. Influenza and Other Respiratory Viruses 6(4), 257–267.