Catching the flu may seem like little more than a nuisance to some people—primarily those who haven’t gotten it—but the sickness is far from a laughing matter. According to the CDC, anywhere from 3,000 to 49,000 Americans die every year as a result of the virus, despite vaccinations and readily available information about how to stay flu-free and what to do if you have the flu to keep others from getting sick, too.
Yes, unfortunately, up to 20 percent of all Americans come down with the flu every year, meaning there’s a decent chance that you will find yourself struggling with the sickness this winter, too. So, should you fall ill, it’s imperative that you know what to do if you have the flu—and more importantly, what not to do.
Leave the House
Sorry, but until your doctor says that you’re 100 percent flu-free, you should be staying in the house as if other people’s lives depend on it (because, quite frankly, they do). Not only can the influenza virus be spread via contaminated surfaces, one recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences also found that an infected person can get healthy people sick just by breathing—no coughing or sneezing required.
If you’re a habitual smoker and you come down with the flu, you’re going to want to put your pack of cigarettes away. When researchers at Yale School of Medicine studied the impact of the flu on serious smokers, they found that “smokers do not get in trouble because they can’t clear or fight off the virus, [but] because they overreact to it,” as study author Jack A. Alias, M.D. explained. Whereas non-smokers are able to fight off their infections with no long-term damage, the researchers were able to show that smokers are left with tissue damage and scarring.
Many people assume what to do if you have the flu is reach for an OTC remedy—after all, how could a medicine that makes you feel better possibly be bad for you? Technically, it isn’t—but the same can’t be said for all of the people around you.
When Canadian researchers studied the effects of drugs containing NSAIDs, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen (like DayQuil, Tylenol, and Motrin) on people with the influenza virus, they found that these medications don’t actually cure subjects, but simply mask their symptoms. The result? An uptick in the number of flu cases every year by as much as five percent.
Pig Out on Junk Food
Like any normal human being, your first impulse regarding what to do if you have the flu is probably to reach for the nearest comfort food and eat the pain away. But while a sweet treat might soothe your sadness in the short-term, research has found that sugary foods “contribute to easy weight gain and thus trigger inflammation.”
Not Get the Flu Vaccine
Even if you contract the flu, getting vaccinated against the virus can still help you combat your illness. “One of the benefits of getting the flu vaccine is that it can help to lower both the severity and duration of illness if you still end up getting sick with the influenza virus,” Dr. Nesochi Okeke-Igbokwe, a physician and health and wellness expert, explained to Bustle. Plus, since there are several strains of the flu every year, getting vaccinated could help protect you against the other influenza strains circulating that you haven’t gotten sick from yet.
Stand Outside in the Cold
There’s a reason that the influenza virus strikes most aggressively in the winter months. Normally, the body’s first line of defense is the mucous membrane, but the chilly air indicative of winter makes it harder to clear out mucous. Once the virus is inside the body, specialized immune cells called phagocytes designed to fend off intruders are put to work—but unfortunately, the dropping temperature also impairs their function. Of course, you can’t control the weather outside, but you can control your exposure to it while sick—so make sure that you stay inside as much as possible while you recover from the flu.
Not Wash Your Hands
If you are sick with the influenza virus, then you should make sure that you are frequently and thoroughly washing your hands so as to avoid infecting anyone else. According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), hand-washing with soap can reduce the number of respiratory illnesses—including the flu—in the general population by approximately 20 percent.
Though being sick makes you want to lethargically lie in bed all day, you should make an effort (if you can) to get your heart rate up for a bit. According to one study published in the journal Nursing Older People, simply exercising regularly can “enhance vaccination response, increase T-cells, and boost the function of the natural killer cells in the immune system,” all of which can help fight the flu.
Consume A Lot of Sodium
“Foods that are very high in sodium are going to be dehydrating to the body,” Jonathan Valdez, a registered dietitian and owner of Genki Nutrition, explained to Byrdie. The problem? When your body is dehydrated, your immune system is impaired—for instance, the body is unable to secrete as many antimicrobial proteins into the saliva—and therefore is less adept at keeping pathogens at bay.
Spend Time in Dehumidified Air
The low humidity levels of the chilly air are just one of the many things that make winter the primary sick season. In fact, when researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health studied the influenza virus in various humidity conditions, they found that up to 77 percent of viral particles remained infectious after being in a room with low humidity, whereas only 14 percent were still infectious after being in a humid room for just an hour.
While obviously you can’t control the humidity of the air outside, you can do things like air-dry your clothes, keep bowls of water on your windowsills, and heat tea on the stove to bring up the humidity levels inside your home and kill off those harmful bacteria.
Not Get Enough Vitamin A
Neutrophils, macrophages, natural killer cells—these cells all play vital roles in the function of the immune system, but none of them can do what they’re meant to without adequate amounts of vitamin A. To stock up on vitamin A when you’re sick, make sure to eat plenty of orange vegetables, like carrots and sweet potatoes, and greens, like spinach, kale, and collard greens.
Or Vitamin D
Another nutrient that’s vital to your recovery from the flu is vitamin D. Per one analysis of 11,000 subjects published in The BMJ, obtaining vitamin D—either via sunlight or through foods like salmon, tuna, and eggs—can protect against respiratory infections like influenza.
Commute Via Crowded Train Cars
Because the influenza virus is so easily transmitted from person to person, one of the worst things you can do if you have the flu is commute via public transportation, where hordes of people are gathered in close proximity and your chances of infecting other people are high. Though you should always try to stay home until you know you’re no longer contagious, the CDC recommends wearing a face mask if you absolutely have to go out in public (like if you have to see your doctor or pick up more tissues).
Use a Hand Towel
“You sort of hate to, but during flu season, it’s probably more hygienic to have people drying their hands on paper towels,” Dr. Peter Shearer, an emergency medicine physician at Mount Sinai Hospital, told ABC News. If you’re sick and you use the same hand towel that your family members and houseguests are using, then you run the risk of getting them sick and making them suffer, too—and nobody wants that.
Keep the Window Closed
Even if it’s uncomfortably chilly outside, make a point of opening the windows at least once an hour for a few minutes. Why? Since the virus can be spread via the air, opening the window will allow the “sick air” to flow outside and the fresh air to flow inside.
Sleep While Lying Flat
There’s a reason why, when you’re sick, your coughing gets exponentially worse as you try to fall asleep. When you lie flat in bed, the mucus from your nose pools in the back of your throat and irritates it, which causes the coughing fits that keep you up. The solution? Sleep with your head elevated. This prevents the mucus buildup in your throat and allows for more restful sleep.
If you want to let your immune system do its job, then you’ll have to give up your e-cigarette for a little while. According to one study published in the journal Thorax, the vapor from e-cigarettes increases the production of inflammatory chemicals and enables harmful particles like bacteria to enter the lungs.
Not Wash Your Sheets
Let’s just say that if your goal is to recover from the flu, then sitting in a bed covered in germs and bacteria isn’t exactly doing you any favors.
Not Eat Vegetables
The nutrients that vegetables supply your body with are immensely beneficial in the fight against an infection. Take broccoli, for instance: One study from the University of California at Los Angeles found that the sulforaphane in the green vegetable helps activate immune cells in the body.
Don’t overexert yourself to the point of anxiety while still working to recover from the flu. Per the American Psychological Association, large amounts of stress can weaken the immune system and make it more difficult for the body to banish harmful bacteria and pathogens.
Unfortunately, since the flu stems from a virus, antibiotics won’t actually treat it. And not only that, but, should you choose to unnecessarily take antibiotics for your flu, you risk becoming resistant to that medication and suffering from longer recovery times, more severe illnesses, and more frequent doctor visits down the line.
Avoid the Doctor
Though most cases of influenza will go away on their own without any prescribed treatment, there are some people—like adults over the age of 65, young children, and pregnant women—who are more susceptible to flu-related complications and who should seek medical treatment should they contract the virus.
Drink Too Much
A glass or two of wine probably won’t do you any harm if you have the flu, but a crazy night full of nonstop shots and mixed drinks is another story. According to one study published in the journal Alcohol, even just one night of intense binge drinking can significantly impact your immune system and prevent it from fighting off foreign pathogens (like the influenza virus).
Sleep Too Little
When you’re dealing with a virus like the flu, your body has to work to eliminate any and all foreign pathogens—but studies have shown that when you get less than seven hours of sleep, your immune system can’t perform at 100 percent.
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