If you've managed to avoid the flu so far, consider yourself lucky. A new study suggests that it might be even easier to spread the flu than we thought: Apparently, you can get sick if someone who has the flu just breathes on you, even if they don't cough or sneeze near you. While you're likely aware of the importance of getting the flu shot, proper hand washing and wiping down surfaces to avoid spreading the flu, new research reveals that those measures might not be enough — but there are other ways to help stop the flu from spreading.
The study, conducted at the University of Maryland and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that it's possible to spread the flu to others just by breathing. "We found that flu cases contaminated the air around them with infectious virus just by breathing, without coughing or sneezing," Dr. Donald Milton, M.D., MPH, professor of environmental health in the University of Maryland School of Public Health and lead researcher of this study, said in a statement on the University of Maryland School of Public Health news site. Suddenly wearing those masks if you have to venture out when you're sick doesn't seem so over the top.
"People with flu generate infectious aerosols (tiny droplets that stay suspended in the air for a long time) even when they are not coughing, and especially during the first days of illness," Milton continued. "So when someone is coming down with influenza, they should go home and not remain in the workplace and infect others."
This flu season was predicted to be extra bad, and it has lived up to those expectations. What's more, while it's important to get the flu shot to protect yourself and others, National Geographic reported that this year's flu strain, known as H3N2, is particularly dangerous, and vaccines may be less effective that usual in preventing it. "H3N2 is historically the bad actor among influenzas," Lone Simonsen, an epidemiologist at George Washington University, told National Geographic. "It's also associated with complications."
National Geographic explained that "when this year's vaccine was being incubated, the virus mutated while it was growing and became less effective." This has led scientists to conclude that this year's flu vaccine is only 30 percent effective in preventing the flu in the U.S. In Australia, the vaccine is reported to be only 10 percent effective. Even if this doesn't seem exactly promising, experts say that the flu tends to be less dangerous if you contract it after receiving the vaccine, so it still isn't a bad idea to get one if you haven't.
Along with getting the flu shot, the CDC recommends being vigilant as the first line of defense in order to avoid the flu. "Avoid close contact with sick people; while sick, limit contact with others as much as possible to keep from infecting them; if you are sick with flu symptoms, [the] CDC recommends that you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone except to get medical care or for other necessities," the CDC advised on its website.
"Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it; wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth; germs spread this way. Clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that may be contaminated with germs like the flu," the CDC continued.
If despite taking every precaution you do get the flu, you might want to consider quarantining yourself for the sake of others. Don't try to be a hero and go to work if you're sick. Instead, stay home and ride it out. The CDC noted that you can go to your doctor and get a prescription for antiviral drugs to treat the flu. If you feel too awful to leave the house, you can see a virtual doctor via an app and arrange to have a prescription delivered. Additionally, there are some things you can do to feel better while you're confined to your apartment.
Taking a bath with dead sea salt and essential oils is great way to soothe your aching body while also helping flush out flu symptoms faster, according to wellness physician Dr. Josh Axe. Run your bath water and add in dead sea salt, and eucalyptus and lavender oils. "Eucalyptus oil has a variety of health benefits: it helps fight colds, respiratory problems, and the flu; treats sinus and allergy symptoms; and has antimicrobial symptoms," Dr. Axe explained on his blog.
The website Wellness Mama noted that you can also make a raw garlic tea — I've done this and it totally works. If you think this sounds as appealing as sticking a pen in your eye, one way to make it more bearable is to add honey and lemon. It's also important to drink a lot of water. "Doctors often recommend rest and hydration for minor illness and the advice is sound," Wellness Mama advised. "At first sign of illness, we make sure to sip water all day to support the body’s natural healing process. This remedy is mostly free but super important."
If you're super congested, you can also try a face steam to clear your head and chest. Boil some water and add essential oils or herbs like thyme, rosemary, and oregano. I also like to use eucalyptus oil. Put a towel over your head and breathe in the steam for 10-15 minutes. Then, stay in bed and marathon your favorite show on Netflix.
While these remedies may make you feel better, they aren't a substitute for seeing a doctor if your symptoms worsen. If you have chest pains, trouble breathing, a fever that doesn't go down, nausea or vomiting, or your headache, cough and congestion lasts for a long period of time, see a doctor right away. The H3N2 flu strain is no joke, and it's always better to be safe than sorry.