Influenza (the flu) is caused by viruses that infect your nose, throat, and lungs. Flu is extremely contagious, able to spread from one person to another standing within 6 feet via droplets produced when coughing, sneezing, or talking or by touching contaminated surfaces. Other research demonstrated that one single contaminated doorknob or tabletop could spread a virus to 40 – 60 percent of workers and visitors within just 2 – 4 hours of contamination. But do you really need a flu shot?

About the Flu

The flu is linked to serious infections like pneumonia—and can make existing health problems like heart or lung disease worse. Seasonal flu is a mild illness for some people, but for others the flu can be serious where treatment requires hospitalization or in the most extreme cases it can be fatal.

The previous year’s vaccine may not protect you from this year’s viruses, because flu viruses evolve so quickly. To keep up with rapidly adapting flu viruses, new flu vaccines are developed and released every year. Building immunity after a flu shot can take up to two weeks. It’s usually best for people in the United States to get their flu vaccine by the end of October, but you can benefit from the vaccine even if you don’t get it until after the flu season starts.

There are many steps you can take to lower your risk of getting the virus, though the flu shot is your best line of defense. But what about those who can’t get a flu shot, or opt not to?

Noninjection Flu Medications

To date the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved three flu antiviral drugs that are recommended by the CDC against the current circulating flu viruses:

  • oseltamivir (Tamiflu)
  • zanamivir (Relenza)
  • peramivir (Rapivab)

These medications may reduce symptoms and shorten the time that you are sick, if used within 2 days of flu symptoms starting. Antivirals may also prevent ear infections in children and hospitalizations and pneumonia in adults. Antivirals can also reduce the risk of death in individuals with flu severe enough to be admitted to the hospital, but some doctors approach them with caution in treating the flu. Antiviral drugs are not a substitute for the flu vaccine.

Protecting Against the Flu

Washing your hands your hands frequently and thoroughly is the most important thing you can do. While the flu virus is airborne in droplets of breath, the majority of it is probably passed by hand. People know it’s common for children to put their hands near or in their mouths—but a large number of adults do it too and are rarely aware they’re doing it. 

You need to wash your hands each and every time for a minimum of 15 seconds. Wash viruses down the drain with soap, warm water, and a period of vigorous rubbing. Do this every time you sneeze or cough and especially before meals. When you cannot manage a full washing, alcohol-based gel hand cleaners are also good to have around as a stop gap.

When you cough or sneeze, always cover your nose and mouth. Cough into your sleeve in the crook of your arm. Use a tissue, rather than a cloth handkerchief because the virus can survive in any collected mucous. Then wash your hands. 

You should avoid crowded public places and avoid close contact with other people if you believe you’ve contracted the virus. Stay at home or keep your child at home if you or anyone in your household is displaying symptoms. Do not go into work. Unless you have trouble breathing or a very high fever develops, don’t risk exposing others even run to the emergency room.  

Getting plenty of rest, eating a healthy diet, drinking plenty of fluids, and getting plenty of exercise fills out the list of other recommendations.

Research has shown that moderate exercise brings about measurable changes in the immune system by sending white blood cells around the body to find intruders and kill them. The immune system returns to normal a few hours after you’ve finished your workout so it’s best to exercise regularly.