The most effective way to prevent the flu is to get your annual flu shot. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone aged six months and older should get a flu vaccine every season. This includes pregnant women.
Many cold and flu viruses are acquired from people who don’t yet show any symptoms, and it’s always difficult to contain viruses that travel through the air. You can’t really help being exposed to these viruses.
However, there are some general measures you can take to give yourself the best chance of not getting infected.
At home or work
- Wash your hands frequently and don’t touch your nose, eyes or mouth unnecessarily.
- "Contain" sneezes and coughs with disposable tissues, and make sure to dispose of them right away. Wash your hands afterwards.
- Try not to touch objects around you when you’re in public places. Avoid the rail of the escalator or your coughing colleague’s pen or computer mouse.
- To minimise exposure, avoid close or prolonged contact with people with a cold or flu. With an incubation period of one to four days, and a contagious period of seven days or longer, it’s best to avoid any person with flu for at least a week.
- There may be a role for vitamin A supplementation to prevent flu in children who are malnourished.
- Quit smoking. If you smoke, you’re more vulnerable to complications of respiratory infections.
- Clean surfaces – especially kitchen and bathroom counter tops – with disinfectant soap.
- Discourage your child from sharing food, utensils, handkerchiefs, napkins and towels with classmates.
- Toys may be contaminated with respiratory secretions. Look for childcare centres where plastic toys are washed daily and stuffed toys washed weekly.
- Teach your children to wash their hands before and after eating, after using the bathroom, after touching their faces, after spending time in public spaces, and after touching animals.
- Rather keep your toddler at home if a child at the crèche has the flu and yours is healthy. Similarly, keep a child at home who shows symptoms of flu to avoid infecting other children.
The flu shot
The best way to reduce your chances of getting the flu is by getting a flu vaccination.
Although flu is generally not dangerous, it can cause serious complications and even death, especially in the elderly and the very young. That’s why you should rather avoid contracting this highly contagious disease, especially if you’re vulnerable.
There are only rare cases in which the flu vaccine shouldn’t be administered such as in people who have had a severe allergic reaction to a previous flu vaccine, as well as those who have had Guillain-Barre Syndrome (a severe paralysing illness) in the past.
People with egg allergy can be vaccinated against the flu. If the egg allergy produces anything more than hives, the vaccine should be administered where there’s a health professional present who can manage a potential allergic reaction.
Because of slight changes (called mutations) in the genetic material of the influenza A and B viruses, new virus strains emerge each year. As a result, vaccines have to be updated each season.
Three strains of influenza are generally included in the annual vaccine, based on the prediction of the strains likely to circulate in the community during a given season.
These small, almost yearly, genetic changes shouldn’t be confused with a major genetic “shift”. Such a shift could lead to the creation of a completely new influenza virus to which humans haven’t been exposed before and to which we have little or no resistance (e.g. the pandemic influenza A/H1N1).
Reviewed by Cape Town-based general practitioner, Dr Dalia Hack. March 2019.