This year 3 to 5 million people will catch the flu. Seasonal influenza—the virus that causes flu symptoms—starts going around like clockwork every winter. If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, flu season runs from November through March. In the Southern Hemisphere, flu season begins in May and ends in September.
Why is the Flu Seasonal?
It was only recently that scientists discovered why the influenza virus is seasonal. The virus is transmitted through water droplets in the air, so something about the winter months allows this airborne virus to spread more efficiently. Is it that people are in closer physical proximity during the winter? Is it due to the start of the school year or New Year’s parties? Or does our immune system function less effectively during the winter because of the cold and lack of sunlight?
The answer, it turns out, is that the airborne virus is more stable in cold, dry air. In 2007, New York researcher Dr. Peter Palese and colleagues found that the influenza virus spreads poorly at higher temperatures. The virus was most stable in the air at 41° Fahrenheit (5° Celsius) and was almost impossible to transmit via air at temperatures above 86° Fahrenheit (30° Celsius).
They also found that the virus was very poorly transmitted when there was a lot of moisture in the air. They reasoned that if there is a lot of moisture, the water droplets containing the viruses combined with the moisture in the air, became too heavy, and sunk to the ground. Notably, they also found that the cold, dry environment keeps people infectious for a longer time. Using an animal model, they found that animals infected with the influenza virus shed the virus for a longer period when the temperature and humidity are low. There is no good explanation for this, but it is definitely worth remembering in the case you or a member of your family (or office) comes down with the flu.
Four Tips to Prevent the Flu this Season
There are four important things you can do to prevent yourself from getting the flu:
- Turn up the thermostat and crank up some humidifiers at work – like we said earlier, the seasonal influenza virus doesn’t do well in hot, moist air.
- Get a vaccine: the flu vaccine is recommended for everyone over the age of 6 months, particularly for those at-risk for flu complications. However, the flu vaccine doesn’t prevent all types of seasonal influenza and you can still catch the flu even if you have been vaccinated.
- Boosting your immune system can help you any time of year, but it may be especially helpful when it is flu season. As we get less sun during the winter hours, supplementing your Vitamin D intake may help immune function and greatly improve your chances to fight the flu.
- Practice good hygiene—washing your hands and covering your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough is a very effective way to prevent the flu.
And if you do get the flu this season, do everyone a favor and stay home (or see a doctor if you are in really bad shape).
Final Thoughts on Preventing Seasonal Influenza Virus from Getting You Sick this Year
Catching the flu is at best a miserable time and at worst a serious health danger. Make the effort to prevent yourself and your family from getting becoming susceptible to seasonal viruses and bacteria that we are exposed to on a daily basis. When these pathogens include the flu, you’ll be happy you took the steps to stay healthy and active.
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