This year’s flu season is shaping up to be the worst in more than a decade. Some states have reported dozens of flu deaths, and emergency rooms have been overwhelmed in some areas. But a top doctor says there are simple steps you can take to protect yourself and your loved ones from the outbreak.
“Each year, the flu peaks after New Year’s,” said Chauncey Crandall, M.D. “At first it is centralized in the Northeast, but then people move south by plane or car for the winter and it spreads to the rest of the country.”
Deaths and hospitalizations are still below what health officials consider to be epidemic levels, but that could change in the coming weeks as statistics are updated.
The flu is usually more serious in children and the elderly, but this year’s predominant strain, H3N2, hits the very young and the very old even harder than most types of influenza, say experts.
Dr. Crandall, head of cardiac preventative services at the world renowned Palm Beach Cardiovascular Clinic in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., says that the flu also puts people at greater risk of heart attacks.
“Research shows that in people with heart problems, any additional insult to the body, including flu, translates to a higher risk of heart attacks,” he said.
Although the flu vaccine is widely advocated, people should not depend on it as their main source of protection, Dr. Crandall said. “The flu vaccine is not a guarantee that you won’t get the flu.”
In addition, the flu vaccine is less effective in the very people who most need to worry about the disease – those over 65 or with immune system problems. This is because the vaccine depends on your body to build antibodies, and this doesn’t occur as efficiently in older and sick people, he said.
Dr. Crandall recommends the following steps to avoid the flu:
1. As much as possible, stay away from close contact with crowds during the height of flu season. Avoid places such as movie theaters, indoor sporting events, parties, crowded restaurants, etc.
2. Avoid plane travel. Shared cabin air and close physical contact can quickly spread the flu among passengers.
3. Eat properly, get enough sleep, and generally follow other healthful practices so you don’t become rundown.
4. Take a minimum of 2,000 mg of vitamin C a day.
5. The flu virus remains alive and capable of infection for four to eight hours on hard surfaces. After touching public doorknobs, washroom faucet handles, public toilet handles, etc., wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water.
6. Wash your hands frequently and well with soap and water throughout the day. Use hand sanitizer regularly. Avoid touching your face with your hands.