With H1N1 going around and the vaccine in short supply (even the seasonal flu vaccine is hard to come by in some areas), you may want to find other ways to protect yourself this season. While nothing (not even the vaccine) is 100% guaranteed to keep you from getting the flu, there are many steps you can take (most of them free or very low cost) to up your chances of staying well. Most of this is probably stuff your mother told you, but it bears repeating:
Wash your hands: Wash often, with soap, and for longer than you think you need to (about the length of time it takes you to sing the ABC song). Get under the nails and between your fingers. You don’t have to use special anti-bacterial soap, either. Regular soap works fine.
Use hand sanitizer: No soap and water handy? Use an alcohol based hand sanitizer and don’t skimp on the squirt. Use a dollop about the size of a quarter and rub your hands together briskly and for as long as it takes all the liquid to be absorbed. Sanitize or wash after touching any public surface.
Don’t touch public surfaces unless you have to: Cover your hand with your sleeve or a paper towel, or use your elbow or hip to open doors. Use your elbow to turn off the sink after washing your hands, or cover your hand with a paper towel. Sanitize your grocery cart handle before shopping (many stores now provide sanitizing wipes or carry a travel pack with you). The less you touch, the less chance you have of coming into contact with a virus.
Stay at least six feet away from coughs and sneezes: If the person in front of you in line at the store is hacking away, find another line if possible.
Do your holiday shopping online: Avoid the sick crowds at the mall and do as much of your Christmas shopping as possible online.
Avoid crowds: Don’t stop living your life, but understand that any crowded situation presents a risk and try to modify your life to limit exposure. With that in mind, go to the grocery store early in the morning or late at night, if possible. See the matinee of a movie rather than the Saturday night show or wait until the movie loses it’s popularity. If you have to fly, fly at times when the airports and planes are less congested. If you must be in a crowded area, try to find a place as far away from the masses as possible.
Sleep: Well rested people have stronger immune systems than the chronically tired.
Eat well: Get your fruits and veggies for vitamins and don’t overeat (overeating taxes your system and interferes with sleep, making your immune system weaker).
Exercise: Move for at least thirty minutes most days of the week, but don’t overdo it. Studies show that after moderate exercise (not exercising until you drop) the immune system actually cranks up. It subsides again after a few hours, which is why you need to exercise most days of the week to keep the benefit going.
Get outside: Cold air does not cause the flu or colds. When you have a chance, get outside and get some fresh air. If you have to wait for a table at a restaurant or for an appointment and the weather isn’t too bad, wait outside. It beats sitting around in crowded, germy spaces.
Don’t shake hands: It may seem rude, but stop shaking hands. A polite nod and a, “Nice to meet you,” will suffice and given that the flu is going around, most people will understand. They might even appreciate the gesture. At many churches, even the peace handshake has been replaced by a polite wave or nod.
Don’t share food or drink: Don’t drink or eat after others, and don’t put your hands in the communal candy or chip bowl at work. Bring your own food and stash it in your desk. Avoid public water fountains, too, if possible.
Don’t use other’s office equipment: If at all possible use your own phone, pen, keyboard, mouse, stapler, etc. rather than communal items. Sanitizing wipes can help if you must use communal items.
Avoid buffets: Buffets are some of the worst germ factories out there. In addition to the crowds, you’ve got tons of people touching the serving utensils and hacking near the food (a sneeze guard doesn’t help when someone leans under it or is too short for it to matter, like a kid). Trays and tables also aren’t always sanitized very well, either.
Drink a lot: Get plenty of fluids. A well-hydrated system is more resistant to germs than a dehydrated system. Moist mucous membranes in your noes, eyes, and mouth are better at trapping germs than dry ones. This is particularly important in colder weather when the air is dryer and overheated. Avoid caffeine as it has a dehydrating effect on the body.
Don’t go to the doctor unless you’re sick: If at all possible put off any optional, routine office visits until either the pandemic passes or until warmer weather when the numbers will likely go down again. Aside from leaving open spots for those who are really sick, you avoid waiting rooms full of sick people. Obviously if you’re sick or in need of care go to the doctor, but if it can wait a couple of months, let it wait.
Try to keep germs out of your house: Clean your home regularly, particularly heavily used/touched items like doorknobs, refrigerator handles, light switches, toilets, etc. Do laundry regularly. Also take off shoes before entering the house as viruses can slip in on the soles. Wash your hands immediately upon entering your home after shopping, etc. to remove anything you may have picked up.
Don’t touch your face: Germs enter primarily through your eyes, nose, and mouth, so avoid touching your face unless you know your hands are clean. And even then, your hands probably aren’t as clean as you think they are, so don’t do it.
Rethink your entertainment: So much of what we do for fun involves going to crowded restaurants, clubs, theaters, restaurants, and sporting events, or taking the kids to places like PlaySpace or Chuck E Cheese’s for an afternoon of fun. You don’t have to stay home all of the time, but think about staying home a little more to cut your risk of exposure. Maybe only go to those things that you really want to do and find alternatives to the rest. Watch the big game on TV, rent a DVD instead of going to the movies, send the kids outside to play, or drag out the board games. As a bonus, these types of entertainment are cheap, allowing you to cut your budget and your risk of exposure to germs.
Watch your mail: Many people overlook their mail and packages as a potential source of flu exposure because we don’t think of it as a “public” surface. But flu viruses can live on surfaces for up to 48 hours. Think how many people handled your mail. If your carrier is sick, you can pick up her germs from the letters or from your box. Wash your hands after getting and sorting your mail and, if possible, leave as much of it outside as possible. I have a trash can and recycling bin in the garage where I dump as much as possible before bringing it inside. I started this to keep the clutter down in the house, but it works as a germ deterrent, too.
Rethink the holidays: I already mentioned shopping online, but the holidays bring other sources of exposure, as well. Big parties, school functions, family gatherings, travel, overcrowded churches, etc. all increase your risk of exposure. Also during the holidays many people get overtired and stressed, eat a lot, drink too much alcohol, and forego exercising, all of which further weaken the immune system. There are a lot of ways to celebrate the holidays on a much smaller scale that might help keep you healthy this year. If you’re concerned about the flu, consider opting out of some activities and taking better care of yourself this year.
Travel protection: If you do travel, carry some sanitizing wipes and wipe down your plane or train seat area. When you get to your hotel room, wipe down the door handles, phone, light switches and TV remote. Most housekeeping services don’t do these areas. If you rent a car, wipe down the steering wheel, gearshift, and controls.
This all boils down to common sense. Avoid as much exposure as possible to public surfaces and places, keep yourself in optimal condition, and wash your hands often. You may do everything possible and still get the flu, but it is worth trying to reduce your risk and these are all low cost, low effort ways to do that. Even if you’re able to get vaccinated, remember that a vaccine does not offer guaranteed protection, so still take some of these steps to keep yourself safe.