Reducing Your Risk of Viral Upper Respiratory Infections (Colds and Influenza)
by Ricker Polsdorfer, MD
Wash Your Hands Often
Hand washing is one of the most effective ways to reduce your risk of getting a cold or the flu. Wash your hands often, especially when you come in contact with someone who is sick. Even if someone in your house has the flu, you can reduce your risk of getting sick by washing your hands.
Effective ways to prevent respiratory infections include:
Wear a Face Mask
If you have to be in close contact with a sick person, wear a face mask or a disposable respirator. Wearing a face mask and washing your hands can help to reduce your risk of getting the flu.
Do Not Share Items
Do not share drinks or personal items.
Keep Your Hands Away From Your Face
Do not bite your nails or put your hands near your eyes, mouth, or nose.
Avoid Crowds During Influenza Season
This may not be a very practical suggestion for everyone. However, if you are at high risk of catching a cold or influenza or are at risk for developing complications from these infections, try to avoid crowded areas or people who are obviously sick during the flu season.
Get a Flu Vaccine
Each year, the World Health Organization (WHO) tries to determine which strains of the influenza virus will be most dangerous in the upcoming influenza season. Vaccines are developed for these strains. Flu vaccines are available and recommended for most people aged 6 months and older.
There is a vaccine against the avian flu, but it is not available to the general public.
Seasonal Flu Vaccine
The seasonal flu vaccine has been associated with fewer hospitalizations and deaths from influenza or pneumonia among the elderly living in a community. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that anyone aged 6 months and older should get a yearly flu vaccine. Children aged 6 months to 8 years will need 2 doses of the vaccine to help build immunity to the virus when getting vaccinated for the first time.
There are two types of seasonal flu vaccines:
A possible side effect is a mild "flu-like" reaction, including fever, aches, and fatigue. Up to 5% of people experience these symptoms after getting the seasonal influenza vaccine.
Flu vaccines are available at doctors' offices, hospitals, local public health offices, and at some workplaces, stores, and shopping malls.
Most people do not need to take antiviral medicines. You may want to talk to your doctor about taking these medicines to lower your risk of getting the flu if you:
If you have the flu and live with someone who is at risk for complications (for example, elderly, babies, someone with cancer), that person may need to take antiviral medicines to prevent getting the flu from you. Remember that these medicines are not a substitute for getting vaccinated. Vaccination is still the best way to prevent the flu.
There are a number of alternative treatments that have been studied as potential ways to prevent colds and the flu. Some that may have protective benefits include:
While echinacea is often labeled as a "cold fighter," the overall evidence is not very strong to support this herb's preventive effects.
Remember to talk to your doctor before taking any herbs or supplements. They can interact with other medicines you are taking or worsen a condition that you have.
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Last reviewed September 2018 by David L. Horn, MD, FACP
Last Updated: 11/11/2020
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