Whether you’re making the rounds with your exceedingly clever Halloween costume (only you will show up as The Joker, really), or chauffeuring your child from one pumpkin-carving party funland to the next, autumn is rich with sweet memory-making — until you notice that sniffling partygoer cough onto the spread of pumpkin spice cupcakes. It’s the start of flu season, and dread washes over you when you imagine what will happen if influenza invades your home.
But you can relax (a little) if you follow these expert recommendations.
Get your flu vaccine
The best way to dodge a full-blown case of influenza is to roll up a sleeve and get vaccinated, said William Schaffner, a professor who specializes in infectious disease, preventative medicine and immunization policy at Vanderbilt University’s School of Medicine.
The influenza vaccine, which combines four different inactive flu strains, “provides complete protection to some people and partial protection to others,” he said. There are a few reasons why you may get sick with flu-like symptoms even after being stabbed in the arm. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, you may still contract the common cold, or you may have been exposed to the flu before getting vaccinated or during the two weeks afterward when your body is still building up immunity.
Anyone 6 months or older can get the flu shot (some kids up until age 8 need two doses, according to federal guidelines), and the vaccine should be administered in October, to get maximum protection as the season begins. That said, it is never too late in the season to get the flu vaccine. If you are needle-averse, you can ask your health care provider about receiving the vaccine through a nasal spray.
If you get the shot, you may develop a low fever or tenderness at the injection site, but that’s generally better than the alternative, Schaffner said. People who are diabetic, have a compromised immune system, are older or are pregnant — “people with underlying health conditions of any kind,” according to Schaffner — should get vaccinated.
“They’re more likely to get severely sick if they encounter the virus,” he said.
Wash your hands. A lot.
If you’re more of a tailgate person, then you’ll understand that the best offense against the flu is a strong defense.. Scrub those hands with soap and warm water long enough to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice. A quick rinse does not suffice.
Keep shared spaces clean to prevent the spread of germs, said Richard Webby, who directs research into the ecology of influenza at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. After your child returns home from school or a play date, steer them directly to the bathroom to wash their hands before touching anything in the house. That can help minimize the risk of welcoming unwanted viral guests into your home.
Avoid people who are coughing and sneezing
While tricky to practice in real life, try to be more situationally aware of people showing signs of sickness, said Schaffner, who also serves as medical director for the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. During flu season, there’s no shame in giving a friendly wave instead of a high-five. It may help reduce the chances that you (or your little party animal) end up feverish, achy and ill. If exposure is unavoidable, be a stickler about good hygiene.
Feel sick? Pick up an antiviral medication
Influenza is a virus with a knack for adapting. Since you host a virus and not a bacterial infection, antibiotics are of no use. To try to nip the flu in the bud, you need antiviral medication, such as Tamiflu. The earlier you take it, the better it works, Webby said. If you find out your child was indeed standing next to Patient Zero when the birthday cake candles are blown out, and symptoms begin to show, don’t wait — get the antiviral drug.
And when you call to request a prescription from your health care provider, Webby said, make sure to keep the party to yourself — just stay home to lower the risk of you exposing the flu virus to others.