It’s inevitable. We’ll wake up this winter with a sore throat, knowing we’ll soon be going through a box of tissues an hour and unable to taste that comforting dark chocolate mousse or the ill-advised ghost pepper enchiladas we ordered in vain, hoping to ignite a single taste bud.
Cold and flu season spares few between now and spring.
“There are usually about 50 flulike illnesses that circulate during flu season that can make you feel pretty miserable, but they’re not all the flu,” said Melody Butler, R.N., B.S.N., executive director of Nurses Who Vaccinateand an infection preventionist at Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center in West Islip, New York.
The best most can hope for is getting a brief cold instead of a more serious infection like the flu, an underappreciated danger that kills thousands each year. Now is the time to prepare. Take steps to reduce your and your family’s risk of sickness and assemble a flu and cold “survival kit” for when viruses come knocking.
Prevention comes first
The first tip is a no-brainer: get the flu vaccine, said Dr. Julie Brandies, a physician at Advocate South Suburban Hospital in the greater Chicago metropolitan area. There’s virtually no reason to not get one.
“It’s not perfect, but it’s a lot better than getting the flu,” Dr. Brandies said. Flu vaccine effectiveness varies season to season, from 10 percent to 60 percent over the past decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But it’s beneficial even without completely preventing influenza.
“The vaccine’s been shown reduce the severity of influenza, but it also reduces colds and other illnesses in young, healthy working adults,” Dr. Brandies said. “For frail people, pregnant women and elderly people, it leads to fewer deaths and fewer hospitalizations.”
Dr. Brandies also recommended adequate sleep, ideally eight hours a night. A small 2009 study found those getting less than seven hours of sleep were three times more likely to catch a cold than those who got at least eight hours.
“After getting a flu shot, hand washing is your best method of protection,” Ms. Butler said. “Routine cleaning of surfaces may reduce the spread of flu to you and others living in the household,” she said, and if you’re caring for a young child, “have plenty of tissues and antibacterial gel on hand.”
Start your cold and flu survival kit early
Start assembling your survival kit now, before the worst of the season hits. Influenza is contagious from a few days before symptoms start to when your fever breaks (without any fever-reducing medications), Ms. Butler said. And you never know who is sick around you — they may not even know yet.
“You have to assume the flu is everywhere,” said Dr. Katharine Miao, medical director for Westchester and the Bronx at CityMD. “Ideally, people would just stay at home,” but many try to “power through it” or can’t skip work and family responsibilities.
An online survey by CityMD last August queried 2,067 adults, 90 percent of whom had the flu or flulike symptoms at the time, and found that three in five people left the house during their last illness. Unsurprisingly, nearly 70 percent went to the drugstore or pharmacy. Others went to the food store, work, a friend’s house, a restaurant, an A.T.M., the gym, or a school or day care, or took public transportation.
“Flu is spread through droplets in sneezes and coughs, which means anyone within a three-foot radius is at risk for contracting it, but flu can also live on hard surfaces for 24 hours,” Ms. Butler said.
So avoid spreading your germs in public later by gathering supplies now (except those you really don’t need). Here’s what you should keep in your kit.
Fluids — Water, sports drinks, ginger ale (for nausea) and herbal teas — and Pedialyte and juices for children — are all good choices. When sick, “hydrate, hydrate, hydrate,” Dr. Brandies said. “Water is absolutely fine. Others may sweat a ton and prefer Gatorade or Pedialyte. Others have salty soups. Everyone has their favorite go-to hydration.”
For tea drinkers, have a good home kettle or tea steeper on hand; these are recommended by Wirecutter, the New York Times product review site. It’s hard to keep children hydrated so Ms. Butler, a former pediatric nurse, recommends fruits such as watermelon and grapes as well as ice pops. Or make your own Popsicles or “ice cube tray pops” with Pedialyte or juice.
Honey — Honey may help reduce coughing, but don’t feed it to children under age 1, who are at risk of botulism. Children ages 1 to 11 are recommended to have a half to one teaspoon, and adults and older children can have one to two teaspoons, or add it to tea, according to a studypublished in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Medications to keep in your kit
· Fever-reducers — Acetaminophen, ibuprofen or aspirin are essential, but never give aspirin to children or teens with influenza and make sure your meds aren’t expired. “Every daylight saving time, when you check your fire alarm batteries, check expiration dates on your meds,” Ms. Butler said.
· Saline drops — One to two drops in each nostril, Ms. Butler said, help remove excess mucus without the side effects or the potential “vicious cycle” of other over-the-counter nasal sprays. Neti pots, like these suggested by Wirecutter, are also fine if you follow the directions exactly, she said.
· Cold and sinus meds — Cough suppressants, expectorants and nasal decongestants are fine for adults and teens but not for children under 4 years old. They aren’t effective in children and may cause harm. Most over-the-counter cold drugs contain dextromethorphan, guaifenesin and/or phenylephrine, so pick your favorite but know what you’re taking. If it contains acetaminophen or ibuprofen, don’t double up by also taking these separately. And no evidence supports homeopathic products, which are at best no better than a placebo.
· Cough drops — These haven’t been studied much but they may soothe the throat. Most contain menthol, but nonmenthol fans can opt for drops with pectin, honey or zinc (or get butterscotch candies!).
· Antiviral treatments — Oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza) require a doctor’s prescription and only help if taken within 48 hours of symptoms starting. Be aware of interactions with other drugs you may be taking and of side effects when you assess these drugs’ risks and benefitswith your health care provider.
Additional supplies to have on-hand
· A good thermometer is a must; see Wirecutter’s recommendations. Use a rectal thermometer for infants and have a bulb syringe to clear their mucus.
· Stock up on boxes of tissues (Wirecutter has reviewed those, too) because you’ll go through plenty. “Don’t save used tissues,” Ms. Butler said. “It’s one and done. Those tissues can be a source of germs.”
· Cold compresses can help a headache or, when placed under the armpits or on the groin, reduce a fever.
· Cool-mist humidifiers — see Wirecutter’s pick for the best here — are better than hot-water vaporizers because there is no burn risk, Ms. Butler said.
· Vomiting isn’t common with the flu but is with other bugs, so be sure to have a bucket or small trash can beside the bed or couch.
· Finally, being sick is both miserable and boring. Soothing items like afavorite blanket and comfy pillows help, and reading or binge-watching TV can keep you occupied.