The flu is more than an inconvenience. It can confine you to bed for days or even a few weeks if you develop complications. Plus, every year, influenza kills around 36,000 people, mostly individuals at the extremes of age, the very young and the elderly. However, the flu can infect anyone at any age.
Seasonal influenza is caused by four strains of influenza virus called types A, B, C, and D. The most common are types A and B, with type A usually causing more severe symptoms and a higher risk of complications and death. While you might feel helpless in the wake of an influenza epidemic, there are things you can do to lower your risk of contracting the flu, beyond simply washing your hands and avoiding people who are sick. These are common sense measures that do have an impact but they’re not the only ones. Let’s look at other ways to reduce your risk of being sidelined by the flu.
Getting the seasonal influenza vaccine is no guarantee that you’ll dodge the flu as the vaccination isn’t 100% effective. How well the vaccine covers the viral strains causing the flu varies from year to year. The vaccine is made up of the strains of influenza virus that researchers believe will be the most prevalent in a given season. Sometimes the vaccine misses the mark, and every year people who are vaccinated develop the flu.
The degree of protection depends on how well the vaccine matches the influenza strains that are circulating as well as the age and health of the person receiving it. But, if you’re vaccinated and catch a strain that isn’t covered, you still will likely have some non-specific immunity against influenza viruses and this may reduce the severity of your symptoms and help you recover faster.
There’s another reason to consider getting a flu vaccine. Getting vaccinated helps protect those around you who may be more vulnerable to influenza viruses, including the elderly, pregnant women, children, and those with other health conditions. The more people who are vaccinated, the fewer folks there are spreading flu viruses around. This is called “herd immunity,” because when more people get the flu vaccine it breaks the chain of transmission, thereby protecting those most at risk and most vulnerable.
Although the CDC recommends that everyone beyond the age of six months be vaccinated, it’s especially important for children over the age of six months, the elderly, and people with health problems get vaccinated as the risk of complications is higher. So, take the time to get a seasonal flu vaccine. It’s the most important thing you can do to reduce your risk.
Make Sure You’re Getting Enough Vitamin D
Influenza is a virus that affects the respiratory tract and vitamin D could be your ally when it comes to avoiding respiratory illnesses. In a meta-analysis of 25 studies involving over 11,000 participants, researchers found that those who supplemented regularly with vitamin D enjoyed a 50% reduction in all respiratory infections. Plus, a study also showed that a low vitamin D level was linked with a higher risk of developing influenza. Not surprising since vitamin D has a significant impact on immune health.
How’s your vitamin D level? It’s during flu season that vitamin D levels tend to dwindle due to lack of direct sunlight. Although you can supplement with vitamin D, it’s best to get a vitamin D level checked so you can supplement in a manner that best raises your vitamin D level.
While there’s no magical food or beverage that will reliably prevent influenza, two types of tea may help keep influenza viruses at bay. One is white tea. White tea has a higher level of catechins than even green tea, making it especially antioxidant rich. In a study, that compared white tea to green tea in terms of fighting viruses, white tea came out on top.
Don’t like white tea? How about a cup of elderberry tea? One study found that elderberry extract improved flu symptoms when participants took it within a day of developing symptoms. Can drinking it during flu season help prevent a bout of influenza? More research is needed but it’s still a soothing beverage to sip when it’s cold outside.
Eat Some Fermented Vegetables
Fermented vegetables are a good source of lactic acid bacteria. One study looked at the impact of a particular strain of lactic acid bacteria, called Lactobacillus casei, on influenza. Lactobacillus casei is abundant in fermented vegetables. Why is this important? Mice that were exposed to Lactobacillus casei and then challenged with the influenza virus showed an enhanced immune response to the influenza virus as well as reduced inflammation. That’s important as an overly aggressive inflammatory response to the virus likely contributes to the complications associated with influenza. Plus, when you eat fermented vegetables, you’re also getting polyphenols that may be beneficial for immune function. So, eat your veggies during flu season, including fermented ones.
Sleep Well and Sleep Enough
Getting adequate sleep helps your immune system function optimally. Studies link lack of sleep with a reduction in infection-fighting T-cells and an increase in cytokines, chemicals that cause inflammation. Most people fall short of the seven-plus hours’ experts recommend for the average person. Don’t be one of them. Especially during flu season, make sure you’re getting enough high-quality sleep to optimize immune function.
Exercise in Moderation
Exercise in moderation may enhance immunity and protect against respiratory infections, including influenza. What’s more, a 2013 study found that exercise may enhance the response to vaccinations, including the flu vaccine. But, there is a point of diminishing returns. Overtraining and engaging in long, grueling sessions of endurance exercise can suppress your body’s ability to fight off infection. So, flu season wouldn’t be a good time to train for a marathon.
The Bottom Line
Now, you know a few ways you can lower your risk of developing the flu. Be sure to do the commonsense stuff too, like washing your hands frequently. All of these together can lower your risk of not only influenza but for other respiratory viruses as well.
World Health Organization. “Influenza (Seasonal)
The Harvard Gazette. “Study confirms vitamin D protects against colds and flu”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Key Facts About Seasonal Flu Vaccine”
Am J Clin Nutr. 2007 Sep;86(3):714-7.
WebMD. “White Tea Beats Green Tea at Killing Germs”
J Int Med Res. 2004 Mar-Apr;32(2):132-40.
University of Maryland Medical Center. “Elderberry”
Science Daily. “Lactic acid bacteria can protect against influenza a virus”
WebMD. “Can Better Sleep Mean Catching Fewer Colds?”