Tips to protect yourself during cold and flu season

As temperatures dip in fall and winter, the risk of catching a cold or getting the flu increases. That’s why it’s important to practise health enhancing behaviours year-round and particularly during cold and flu season, which can last from November to April. Following these simple tips can help:

  • Get plenty of sleep.
  • Eat a healthy diet with lots of vegetables and fruits. Probiotics found in such foods as yogurt, aged cheeses, sauerkraut and miso have also been found to boost the immune system.
  • Drink lots of fluids.
  • Exercise regularly to your abilities.
  • Manage your stress.

The flu shot is your best defence

Both colds and flu (influenza) are caused by contagious viruses but unlike the common cold, the flu can lead to serious health problems like pneumonia, bronchitis, and sinus and ear infections. If your immune system is already weakened due to a chronic condition, health issue or cancer treatment, you are not necessarily at greater risk of infection from colds and flu, but you are at a higher risk for complications. However, if your white blood cell count is low due to bone marrow disease such as leukemia, chemotherapy or other treatments, you need to do everything possible to lower your chances of infection because white blood cells help the body fight infection and disease.

Many of the ways to protect yourself against colds and flu are the same, but in the case of the flu, health experts say getting vaccinated is the single most important thing you can do.

Make sure the flu shot is safe for you

The flu shot is considered safe for most people with a suppressed immune system because it contains a dead virus. The nasal spray, on the other hand, contains a live virus and could cause illness. Speak to your doctor or healthcare provider first.

In Canada, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) recommends that everyone 6 months and older get a flu vaccination unless they have serious allergies to any ingredient in the vaccine, except eggs; have experienced a serious allergic reaction from a previous flu shot; or developed Guillain-Barre Syndrome within 6 weeks of a previous flu shot.

The flu shot is particularly important for people at risk of developing severe complications from the flu including:

  • people with underlying health conditions, such as asthma, heart disease, diabetes or cancer
  • everyone 65 years of age and over
  • residents of nursing homes and other chronic care facilities
  • all children between 6 months and 5 years
  • pregnant women

The flu shot is also recommended for health and other care providers who are in contact with those at risk of complications from the flu. It is possible to infect others beginning one day before symptoms develop and up to 5 to 7 days after becoming sick. Even if you don’t exhibit symptoms, you can still carry and spread the flu virus to others.

The flu shot is different each year because the virus changes frequently so you need to get it every fall. It takes 2 weeks to take effect. Although it’s best to get your flu shot in October or November, you can still get it into January.

Tips to avoid getting or spreading a cold or the flu

Wash your hands often

  • Wash your hands vigorously with soap and water for at least 15 seconds to help prevent the spread of viruses, which can live on your hands for up to 3 hours. Sing the ‘Happy Birthday’ song twice while rubbing, to keep track of the time. Make sure to rub your wrists, back of your hand, between the fingers and under your nails.
  • It doesn’t matter if the water is hot or cold. The act of scrubbing will physically remove the germs.
  • Rinse thoroughly and dry with a clean paper towel or air dryer.
  • If you are in a public restroom, shut the faucet off with a paper towel. Try to push the door open with your shoulder or use another paper towel to turn the handle. Gloves work too when opening doors or pushing elevator buttons, etc.
  • If soap and water are not available, use a hand sanitizer(gel or wipes) with at least 60% alcohol.

Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze

  • Use a tissue and throw it out rather than putting it in your pocket, on a desk or table.
  • If you don’t have a tissue, cough into your upper sleeve.

Don’t touch your face

  • Viruses spread when infected people cough, sneeze or talk and droplets enter your body through your eyesnose or 
  • Germs can live on hard surfaces for 2 to 8 hours. You can get infected if you touch a doorknob or light switch and then rub your eye or bite your nails.

 Limit contact with people who are ill

  • Try to avoid close contact with people who have a cold or the flu.
  • Ask family and friends to be mindful of your higher risk and not expose you if they are ill.
  • If someone in your family is ill, change sleeping arrangements if possible, and avoid sharing washcloths, towels, dishes and utensils.

Stay at home when you’re sick

  • Viruses spread more easily in group settings, such as businesses, schools and nursing homes.
  • If you are sickwith flu–like illness, stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone except to get medical care or for other necessities.

Clean and disinfect surfaces and shared items

  • Viruses liveon hard surfaces and items you touch every day like countertops, door handles, computer keyboards and phones for up to 8 hours.
  • Clean and disinfect:
    • kitchen sponges and dishcloths
    • cutting boards
    • desks
    • floors
    • sinks
    • toilets

How to know if you have the flu or just a bad cold

The symptoms of the flu and the common cold can be very similar. A cold generally causes sneezing, itchy or watery eyes, and a runny nose. The flu tends to involve the whole body and not just the head. Symptoms include fever, chills, body aches, chest discomfort, joint pain and muscle pain. The flu generally comes on faster and is more severe than a cold.

This chart can help determine if you have a cold or the flu.

Symptom Cold Flu
  • Fever
  • Rare
  • Common, high (102°F – 104°F or 39°C – 40°C). Starts suddenly, lasts 3 to 4 days. Not all people with flu
  • General aches and pains
  • Sometimes, mild
  • Common, often severe
  • Muscle aches
  • Sometimes, usually mild
  • Often, can be severe
  • Feeling tired and weak
  • Sometimes, mild
  • Common, may last 2 to 3 weeks or more
  • Fatigue (extreme tiredness)
  • Unusual
  • Common, starts early
  • Sneezing
  • Common
  • Sometimes
  • Complications
  • Can lead to sinus congestion or earache
  • Can lead to pneumonia and respiratory failure, worsen a current chronic respiratory condition, be life-threatening
  • Chest discomfort and/or coughing
  • Sometimes, mild to moderate
  • Common, can become severe

 What to do if you get the flu

 If you feel the onset of flu symptoms and you have an underlying medical condition such as COPD, diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis or asthma, contact your doctor or healthcare provider right away. Be sure to keep the contact information for your healthcare provider with you at all times and a list of all medications you take as well as the dosages and frequency.

Antiviral drugs may reduce the length and severity of your illness and help prevent more serious problems. Studies show that flu antiviral drugs work best when started within 2 days of getting sick.

Other treatments for the flu or a cold are fairly similar:

  • Stay home and get plenty of rest
  • Drink lots of fluids
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol and tobacco
  • Speak to your doctor or nurse practitioner about over-the-counter medications that can help you feel better (basic pain or fever relievers), but do not give acetylsalicylic acid (ASA or Aspirin®) to children or teenagers under the age of 18
  • Treat muscle pain using a hot water bottle or heating pad — apply heat for short periods of time
  • Take a warm bath
  • Gargle with a glass of warm salt water or suck on hard candy or lozenges
  • Use spray or saline drops for a stuffy nose

Call your doctor or nurse practitioner if:

  • You don’t start to feel better after a few days
  • Your symptoms get worse

Resources

  1. Government of Ontario
  2. Healthline
  3. WebMD
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  5. Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety
  6. Mesothelioma.com
  7. Canadian Cancer Society
  8. Mayo Clinic