As we age, our immune systems have a harder time recognizing and mobilizing against viruses. This is especially true for adults over 50. In fact, more than half the people hospitalized for influenza-related illnesses are 65 and older. While nothing can guarantee we won’t get sick, there are some simple strategies for reducing our chances of catching a virus such as the flu.
Some key facts about viruses
While people often interchange the two, viral infections and bacterial infections are different. It may sound simple, but bacterial infections (like a urinary tract infection) are caused by bacteria, and viral infections (like the flu) are caused by viruses. A virus is a tiny parasite that rapidly reproduces within its host cell. In other words, in order to live they need you. Another key difference is that antibiotics only combat bacteria while they can often make a viral infection worse.
Viruses are spread through the saliva of an infected person–through tiny droplets expelled through a cough, a sneeze, a conversation, or by simply exhaling. The saliva transfers germs from the body to the air, and from the air, in a worse-case scenario, to you.
Here are the best and easiest ways to avoid getting sick.
1. Get an annual flu shot
One of the most common and treatable viruses is the flu. The easiest and most proven way to reduce your chances of catching the flu is the flu vaccine. And for Medicare recipients, the shot is absolutely free. The vaccine cuts your odds of getting the flu in half and reduces the flu’s severity if you happen to catch it.
Your doctor may suggest alternatives to the traditional vaccine like a “high-dose” injection or an “adjuvanted” vaccine. An adjuvanted vaccine has an additive that provokes a more robust immune system response in adults over 50. Also, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people over 50 should not use the flu vaccine nasal sprays as they can be ineffective.
The best time to get a flu shot is early in the flu season (October or November). But it’s never too late. You can get the flu anytime throughout “flu season” which typically runs from October through mid-April. It takes about two weeks from the date of the shot for your body to develop a partial immunity to the virus. You’ll slowly increase the number of helpful antibodies, peaking around six weeks after the injection.
2. Engage in germ warfare
While it can be difficult, try to avoid large groups whenever possible during peak flu season. Some hospital guidelines define “at risk” as being within six feet of an infected individual. Be sure not to touch your mouth, nose, or eyes after being around someone who may have symptoms of a virus.
3. Handle with care
It doesn’t take a direct hit to spread germs. A virus can live for up to 24 hours on surfaces like a phone, keyboard, doorknob, or light switch. During flu season, wash your hands often with soap and warm water. Cleaning countertops and other areas that are regularly used is equally important. When you’re done cleaning, soak rags in bleach, and while wet, zap sponges in the microwave for a minute to fully sanitize them.
4. Stay active
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can prevent the flu and a variety of other viruses. Staying active and healthy doesn’t need to be complicated or strenuous. Moderate exercise, like walking or stretching, can help keep the flu at bay. But, exercising with the flu may potentially worsen symptoms–so if you feel like you’re coming down with something, allow your body to get the rest it needs.
If you experience symptoms such as sore throat, runny nose, body aches, headache, chills, fever, coughing, or congestion, see your doctor as soon as possible. Early treatment can lessen the virus’ severity and duration.