Your Flu Risk May Spike When You Do These 4 Things

You're not being paranoid when it comes to your coughing co-workers. Our current flu season is shaping up to be a nasty one.

The U.S. is facing one of the worst flu seasons in a decade. Credit: golubovy/iStock/GettyImages

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is calling this flu season moderately severe due to an imperfect vaccine and consistently cold weather. On a positive note: The hospitalization rate is so far only half of what it was during the 2014-15 flu season. Nevertheless, the flu kills approximately 12,000 people in the U.S. during mild years and about 56,000 during moderately severe ones. And according to the CDC, 26 states are currently experiencing high flu activity levels.

So brace yourself — and avoid doing these four things for your best shot at staying well this flu season.

1. Not Getting a Flu Shot

This tip might sound obvious, but about three in five Americans have yet to get vaccinated this flu season, according to data from the CDC. Not getting vaccinated can leave you at risk of severe illness and of spreading sickness to other people, including vulnerable populations like pregnant women, young children and the elderly.

So what's stopping people from getting a flu shot? Well, many people believe that flu shots can cause the flu. We're happy to confirm that it can't. And while others think that the vaccine is ineffective, getting it can actually reduce your chances of getting the flu by 40 to 60 percent. We like those odds. Plus, if you end up getting the flu anyway, the shot will help to make your symptoms milder, so your life will be a lot less miserable.

Luckily, it's not too late to get the flu shot. While vaccinations tend to drop off in mid-November, flu season usually doesn't peak until February, and the circulation of flu viruses can continue into May. So if you're among the 60 percent that hasn't gotten vaccinated, ask your health care provider for information or check out this map to find a clinic in your area.

2. Going to the Emergency Room

With flu cases at their highest in years, emergency rooms across the nation are seeing a major spike in visits from people with flu-like symptoms. Hospitals are so overrun with patients seeking treatment for the flu that some doctors are asking people with nonemergency symptoms to instead go to urgent care centers or see a primary care physician.

Not only will you be doing your health providers a favor, you'll also be protecting your own wellness: If you go to the emergency room and don't actually have the flu, you might catch it from the people who do.

So when should you go to the emergency room? Go if you're experiencing emergency symptoms like trouble breathing, dizziness, confusion or uncontrollable fever. But in the vast majority of cases, the flu can be treated at home with bed rest, plenty of fluids and over-the-counter medicines like ibuprofen.

3. Ignoring Your Symptoms

If you feel a runny nose coming on, you might be tempted to pretend that it's all in your head and go about your life as normal. In fact, one 2016 survey found that 62 percent of Americans have gone to work sick.

But not slowing down could worsen your cold or flu. Studies show that stress weakens your immune system, making your body more vulnerable to viruses and less able to fight them off. So going at 100 percent when you're feeling sick could end up extending your illness from a couple of days to several weeks. Instead, just get some rest at home.

4. Staying Up Late

We get it. It's hard to meet all your deadlines, maintain a healthy social life and catch up on the newest Netflix original. But if you need to make time, don't borrow from your sleep.

"Research shows that our bodies need seven to eight hours of sleep in order to stimulate an immune response from our 'natural killer cells,' which attack viruses," David Katz, M.D., founder of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, tells Health. "Sleep is my most reliable defense against infection." If you feel symptoms coming on, get as much rest as you can and catch up on your shows later.

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What Do YOU Think?

What are you doing to reduce your risk of getting the flu? Do you typically get a flu shot? Let us know in the comments section!

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