simple tips to protect yourself this winter

All of a sudden, the world has become a scary place again. Just as we were getting used to reunions with friends, trips to the pub and holidays abroad (all through the protection of perspex screens and hand sanitiser, of course) new restrictions make it feel as if we’re heading back to square one. 

As if coronavirus, a second lockdown and a curfew weren’t enough to deal with, flu season is nearly upon us. According to Bupa, people usually get seasonal flu between December and March, although outbreaks happen as early as October and as late as May.

And a new study has revealed that this year’s outbreak could be more harmful than usual. According to Public Health England, catching flu and Covid-19 at the same time nearly doubles the risk of death. A new study of hospital patients who contracted both diseases from January to April this year found a 43 per cent mortality rate compared with 23 per cent in people who solely caught coronavirus. Although it’s important to remember that these high death tolls reflect the vulnerable status of those patients, officials are warning that anyone who gets both flu and coronavirus at once could be in “serious trouble”.

While this news makes for sombre reading, it’s important to remember that the preventative measures we have in place to curb the spread of coronavirus, such as social distancing, regular hand washing and avoiding large crowds, can also help to halt the spread of flu. Here are some ways you can avoid the dreaded bug this winter. 

Three avoidance tactics

Flu, like coronavirus, is spread through close social contact with people who are infected. Most experts are in agreement that flu viruses are spread mainly via droplets caused by coughing, sneezing or talking. These are then inhaled into the lungs of nearby people, or land in their noses and mouths. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US, people with flu can spread it to others up to about six feet away.

“I would think about not catching flu in three ways – how to stop picking it up from other people, how to stay as healthy as possible, and making sure that you get the vaccine,” says Dr Bella Smith, founder of the Digital GP. 

The good news is that the measures to avoid coronavirus and flu are very similar. “You should be avoiding people who are unwell, staying at home if you’re unwell yourself, wearing a mask, cleaning your hands, not touching your face and keeping your distance,” says Smith.

Some experts think that our familiarity with these methods could mean that we don’t experience such a bad flu epidemic this year. “In nursing homes, we’ve had fewer illnesses… like norovirus and other infectious diseases. People that do come in and visit are being fastidious with their hand-washing hygiene, which can only be a good thing,” says Smith.

Although the symptoms of coronavirus vary widely from person to person, sneezing isn’t a widely reported symptom among sufferers. However, if you are sneezing for any reason, it’s important to use disposable tissues; so-called antiviral tissues will kill any viruses caught on the paper, but do nothing to those in the air. 

The flu virus can live on surfaces for up to 24 hours, so it’s very easy to contaminate shared spaces. If you are going into the workplace, good hygiene measures can help reduce your chances of getting an infection. This includes regularly cleaning door handles, lift buttons and your desk space.

Staying healthy 

Immunity is a hot topic at the moment. According to experts, 80 per cent of the body’s immune system is in the gut. As a result, Smith says that following a healthy diet and exercising regularly can limit your chances of catching the flu.

“Vitamin D is what most of us lack when it comes to winter, so it’s worth topping up on that if you can. Vitamin C is important for immunity too; if you have a good diet that’s full of nutrients, fruit and vegetables, then you probably won’t need supplements,” says Smith. She adds that if your diet is lacking in nutrients, it can be a good idea to look at increasing your vitamin C intake through a daily supplement.

Pooled data from 16 clinical trials involving 7,400 people show that taking vitamin D supplements reduces the risk of experiencing at least one respiratory infection, including flu and pneumonia, by a third, with positive benefits seen within three weeks. Some found that echinacea could reduce incidences of the common cold by around 26 per cent.

The ideal diet varies from person to person. Dr Claire Bailey, a GP with a special interest in immunity and author of The Clever Guts Diet Recipe Book and The 8-Week Blood Sugar Diet Recipe Book, says that eating a low-carbohydrate Mediterranean diet rich in different coloured fruits and vegetables will give you the best chance of getting the wide variety of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients your body needs to fight infection.

Smith advises that it’s important that we aren’t exercising too much, as this can actually lower people’s immunity by triggering stress chemicals, like cortisol. After a marathon, for example, a 1990 study showed 13 per cent of finishers developed an upper respiratory infection, compared with only 2 per cent of runners who trained for the marathon but didn’t run it.

However, a separate study found that when compared with not exercising, working out at low to moderate frequency is associated with lower flu-associated mortality.

“The guidance is 150 minutes a week, so about half an hour a day,” says Smith. “The main thing to remember is the benefit of fresh air, getting your heart pumping and your lungs working. A lot of my patients thought that shielding meant they couldn’t go outdoors; but if you’re social distancing then this isn’t the case.”

In a study published in 2019, current smokers were five times more likely to have laboratory confirmed flu than non-smokers. And with Stoptober – the NHS’s stop smoking challenge, which runs throughout October – around the corner, it’s a good time to kick the habit. 

Get the flu jab

The final, and perhaps most important thing to remember, is to get the flu jab if you’re eligible. As a vaccine for coronavirus is not available yet, it’s important to take advantage of any mode of protection against flu that you can. This year, the eligibility for a free flu jab has been widened to include those aged over 50. 

If you aren’t eligible for a free jab, you can pay for one at pharmacies and supermarkets, although availability is currently limited. This is because they’re prioritising stocks to those who need it the most. Indeed, this is the case for Boots; the pharmacy has temporarily suspended its bookings for anyone under the age of 65 and is temporarily limiting existing stocks to those at highest risk.

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