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9 Ways to Prepare for the Worst Flu Month of the Year

Make sure you follow smart flu-prevention strategies during flu season. They'll keep you from catching—or spreading—the flu.

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Beware of February

Flu season typically lasts from October to March but usually, the month with the highest number of cases is February, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But unless you’re a hermit, you can’t just hole up in your house for the entire month to avoid the germs. Thankfully there are some things you can now to prepare for the onslaught of sniffles and sneezes coming soon.

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Why winter is the worst time for the flu

Why are there more cases of the flu during the winter than at other times of the year? “When the virus comes out of the mouth or nose through a cough or sneeze, it travels farther when the air is so dry,” says Erik Larsen, MD, assistant professor in the department of emergency services at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “In the summer, the air has more moisture in it which helps protect you but in winter the air is very dry.” Taking these steps now can give you the best fighting chance to stay healthy.

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Get a flu shot

“The vaccine doesn’t guarantee you won’t get the flu, but it will give you a certain degree of immunity,” says Dr. Larsen. “And there is evidence that if you do get the flu, you’re much more likely to have a milder case.” The CDC recommends that everyone six months of age and older get the vaccine every year; it’s especially important for young children, pregnant women, people 65 and older, and people with medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes, and heart disease. Make sure you’re maximizing your vaccine by avoiding these 8 mistakes that make the flu shot less effective.

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Build your immune system

“A healthy person with a healthy immune system who gets exposed to the flu virus is better able to reject it,” says Dr. Larsen. He stresses the importance of exercising, getting eight hours of sleep per night, and managing stress. This helps with more than just flu prevention. “A strong immune system can help you get over it sooner if you do get it and also head off secondary infections like bacterial pneumonia,” he says.

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Eat a healthy diet

Sugar leaves you more susceptible to infectious diseases and more vulnerable to viruses, says Dr. Larsen. Researchers theorize that white blood cells are not able to operate as effectively in a high-sugar environment. “The white cells are the body’s final defense, and if they’re not operating at their peak, you’re more likely to get whatever virus invaded you.” So he recommends reducing sugar and alcohol intake. And it turns out your grandmother was right about chicken soup: “There’s a certain amount of evidence that bone broth made out of turkey or chicken bones with vegetables can be helpful against respiratory illnesses,” Dr. Larsen says. Check out the 6 clear symptoms of the flu you shouldn’t ignore.

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Boost your C and D intake

Speak to your doctor about the quantity that’s right for you, and if you do take extra C, drink plenty of water with it because the vitamin can be hard on the kidneys. Dr. Larsen advises 8 oz. of water for every 500 to 1,000 IU of vitamin C. “The body fights infection better when it’s well-hydrated,” he adds, so it’s smart to drink at least eight glasses of water a day during flu season anyway.

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Wash your hands

Germs can live on surfaces for two hours or longer. If you should touch a virus-laden spot—say, a faucet handle or doorknob—the virus can transfer to you. Practicing good hand hygiene—washing your hands with warm water and soap for a minimum of 20 seconds (the length of time it takes to sing the “Happy Birthday” song two times through)—can help prevent that spread of germs. Also important: washing your nails. “The longer your nails are, the more likely germs get trapped under them,” Dr. Larsen says. “I tell people to put soap in one palm and dig the other hand’s nails into it so the soap goes under them.” If too much hand-washing creates super-dry hands, that’s a problem, too (germs can get into the cracks), so put lotion on them before bed so they can heal overnight.

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Try to keep your hands off your face

“The most common points of entry for flu viruses are the mouth, nose, and eyes,” says Dr. Larsen. “Viruses can enter these ports very easily.” By contrast, viruses can’t penetrate your skin. “So as you walk around and touch all kinds of objects, try to keep your hands away from your face,” he says. Here are 10 more germ-spreading habits you should give up now.

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Cough into your elbow

“Many times we cough into our hand, which you might think is better than spraying someone, but your hand is then infectious and you may be doing a greater disservice by infecting many more people,” Dr. Larsen says. So the best thing to do is to cough or sneeze into your elbow. Keep in mind that this is wise all the time, not just when you’re sick. “You’re infectious at least one day before you become symptomatic, so you could be spreading the flu without knowing it,” he says.

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Clean your computer

If you work in an office and share a computer with someone else, clean the keyboard often. “It’s a common contact point for the flu,” Dr. Larsen says. The same goes for any type of shared device, such as a cash register or a restaurant ordering system. He recommends using alcohol-based wipes. Here are 20 more things everyone should know about the flu virus.

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Stay home

There’s pressure on both employers and employees to be as productive as possible, but heading into work when you’re sick isn’t smart. “The flu is highly contagious, so the short-term value of having the employee in the office could have a huge downside when everyone exposed to that person gets sick,” Dr. Larsen says. He’s adamant about not returning to work until 24 hours after your fever ends—and that’s without medication. “If you take medication and your fever goes away, that’s not being fever-free,” he says. “If you think you’re better, stop taking medication and see if the fever is still gone after 24 hours. If so, you’re good to go.” Now, check out these 14 surprising things you shouldn’t do if you have the flu.

Medically reviewed by Michael Spertus, MD, on October 22, 2019