How to Prevent the Flu

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on August 15, 2022
5 min read

If you don’t make an effort to prevent it, odds are that you’ll catch the flu this season.

For most of us it means a couple of weeks out of work or school, then life goes back to normal. But the flu can be serious, even deadly, if you have a health condition like asthma, heart disease, diabetes, or a weakened immune system.

The trick is not to get sick in the first place. Here are proven ways to avoid the flu.

Experts say the single best way to avoid the flu is to get the flu shot as soon as you can. The ideal time is early fall. But any time during the winter is fine if you haven't already done it.

The vaccine is designed to protect against the flu strains health experts believe will be most widespread each season -- for example, the H1N1 "swine flu." Some vaccines work against four flu strains -- you might hear them called quadrivalent. Others guard against four strains -- doctors will call them quadrivalent.

The flu "shot" contains a dead virus. One kind that’s approved for people 6 months and older goes straight into the muscle. Another uses a smaller needle that only goes into the top layer of your skin. It's available for people ages 18 to 64.

The nasal spray, FluMist,contains a live but weakened form of the virus. It's approved for those between ages 2 and 49 who are healthy, not allergic to the flu vaccine, and not pregnant

Egg-free vaccines are for people between ages 18 and 49 who have severe egg allergies. If your allergy is severe, you should get the flu shot from a doctor who can treat a severe allergic reaction -- either at your doctor's office, a hospital, a clinic, or a health department. Many children with egg allergies are at risk for complications from the flu, so it’s important for them to get the flu shot.

Fluzone is a high-dose version for those ages 65 and older. It’s better at protecting an older person's immune system.

There are “needle-less” option. for people ages 18 to 64: 

  • The jet injector vaccine with Afluria, which uses a tool and high pressure to deliver the vaccine. 
  • Fluad Quadrivalent is a shot that uses an adjuvant, an ingredient that helps create a stronger immune response in those ages 65 and older.

Don't make excuses for skipping your flu shot. Your arm might be a little sore the next day. And you may feel a little achy or run a low fever afterward. But you can't catch the flu from the vaccine. It contains a weakened or killed form of the virus.

It’s easy to catch the flu. When a nearby sick person sneezes or coughs, they send out a spray of virus-laden droplets straight to your open mouth or nose.

You can also pick it up from touching a surface -- like the restaurant table where a sick person dined before you. Flu germs can linger on places like tables, counters, desks, doorknobs, and faucets for up to 8 hours.

When you touch a germy surface and put your hands on your eyes, nose, or mouth, your fingers bring the virus right into your body.

You can try to avoid sick people, but that's not always easy to do, especially when you're in close quarters like movie theaters and malls. If you can't steer clear of the virus, at least use good hygiene to create a barrier against flu germs.

  • Wash your hands with warm water and soap every time you shake hands or touch a surface that might be germ-covered.
  • Carry an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with you for times when you can’t get to a sink.
  • Bring along disinfectant wipes to clean any surfaces you're about to touch.
  • Take extra care to not touch your mouth, eyes, or nose without washing your hands first.

Sharing is wonderful, but not during flu season. Be stingy with your utensils, plates, glasses, and anything else you touch with your mouth. Wash used dishes and utensils in the dishwasher or in the sink with hot water and soap.

If you want your immune system to be in good enough shape to fight off the flu and other germs, you need to stay healthy.

All these will give your body the strength it needs to fend off an influenza attack.

In addition to everything else smoking does to your body -- from boosting your cancer risk to giving you premature wrinkles -- it could make you more likely to get the flu.

There’s evidence that smokers get the flu more often than people who don’t light up. And when they do get sick, smokers tend to have a more severe infection and a higher risk of dying from the flu.

Holding off this nasty illness is just one more reason to talk to your doctor about ways to quit smoking.

All these steps should keep you pretty well armed against the flu. Still, even the best defense isn't perfect.

In case you do get sick, ask your doctor about antiviral flu drugs like baloxavir (Xofluza), oseltamivir (Tamiflu), peramivir (Rapivab​​​​​​​), or zanamivir (Relenza). They can help you get better faster. But you need to take them within the first 2 days of getting sick.

If you do come down with the flu this season, look out for others. You can spread it for up to a week after you get sick. Don't share germs with your friends, family, and co-workers.

  • Stay home until you feel better and your fever has been gone (without the help of medicine) for at least 24 hours.
  • Sneeze into your elbow, not your hand. That way you can’t pass it around.
  • Toss used tissues after you blow your nose. Don't leave them lying around for someone else to find.