As temperatures begin to drop, experts are turning their attention to the upcoming cold and flu season. In the United States, flu season starts as early as October and can persist well into the spring. Last year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that from October 1, 2022, through April 30, 2023, there were 27 to 54 million flu illnesses, with 300,000 to 650,000 flu hospitalizations in the U.S. — and experts are predicting a rise in influenza cases this year.
The experts below are available to share ways people can protect themselves from the upcoming cold and flu season, as well as share preparedness items to keep on hand and how to treat symptoms at the first sign.
Here are ways to protect yourself from the upcoming cold and flu season, according to physician Akua Ampadu, MD:
Stay Up to Date on Vaccines
Vaccines help prepare the body should there be exposure to infection-causing organisms. Vaccines help maintain immune strength by training the body to recognize and fight these germs. Ensure you are up to date with your Influenza vaccine, and talk to your doctor about other vaccines that may benefit you.
Use Your Diet to Strengthen Your Immune System:
Eating a balanced diet filled with healthy grains, fruits, and vegetables should provide your body with the vitamins and minerals needed to fight infection. Adequate Vitamin C and Zinc before infection can help with cellular production and repair once you do develop a cold or the flu. Appropriate Vitamin D is also crucial during colder months as we tend to become deficient due to lack of sun exposure in the winter. African Americans are more prone to Vitamin D deficiency due to our melanated skin. Consider checking your Vitamin D levels and begin supplements should your levels be below normal.
Get Adequate Sleep
The change in time, shorter days, and longer nights can sometimes throw your sleep cycle off. Sleep is essential to immunity and your cells’ ability tonight off infection and repair themselves after exposure to an infection. If you find yourself having difficulty falling and/or staying asleep, consider a melatonin supplement to improve your circadian rhythm. If you still notice you are not getting quality sleep, speak with your care provider, as this may indicate something more serious underlying.
Wash Your Hands
Germs love the hands, and it is imperative that you aim to keep them as clean as possible. Wash hands frequently after using the bathroom, before eating, when you come home, and whenever they are soiled. Remember to lather your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds before rinsing. If soap is not available, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer should be used.
Preparedness Items to keep on hand:
Salt to create a saltwater gargle for a sore throat (1 teaspoon per cup of warm water).
Lozenges (like Zicam cold remedy cherry lozenges) or hard candy to help with a sore throat.
Fever reducers like acetaminophen.
Pain relievers like ibuprofen. Use sparingly and consult your doctor first if you have a history of stomach/gastrointestinal tract ulcers or kidney disease.
Over-the-counter nasal decongestants and cough suppressants.
Humidifiers- these machines aid in keeping moisture in the air, which helps with congestion as well as dry nose and mouth
Honey and lemon: both of these common kitchen ingredients, can soothe a sore throat when added to tea or warm water and help with congestion from a cold
Saline nasal spray.
Mentholated salve, camphor, eucalyptus, and menthol-containing rubs placed on the nostrils or chest can help relieve blocked nasal packages and a sore chest area from frequent coughing.
What to do at the first sign of a cold/flu:
Cover your cough/sneeze and be diligent about keeping a clean environment to reduce the spread of the viral particles that cause colds and influenza.
Don’t smoke: As these are respiratory illnesses, smoking can irritate the lungs and airway passages.
Drink plenty of fluids (water, clear broth, tea, etc) to help prevent dehydration and loosen mucus from nasal and air passages.
Sleep and rest are essential to body and mind recovery during a cold or the flu. Try not to over-exert yourself and minimize exercise during this time.
Monitor your temperature:
Contact your health care provider should you have temperatures greater than 100.4F for more than 48-72 hours. Also, contact them should you have more concerning symptoms like severe chest pain, shortness of breath/ low oxygen levels.
The flu and colds can sometimes be very difficult to differentiate as they have common symptoms. However, the flu usually also comes with low-grade fevers and body aches. Should you notice these symptoms, contact your doctor within the first 24 hours, as you may benefit from antiviral medications like Tamiflu, which help reduce the severity of influenza.