10 Things to Know About the Flu Virus

Want to know how to avoid the flu? Here's what the virus would tell you if it could: whom it loves to infect, the surprising places it lurks in your home, and how it makes you feel so crummy.

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Think we’re just a cold? Ha!

Think we’re just a cold? Ha! David Goldin for Reader’s Digest
Underestimate us at your peril. Each year on average, we send 200,000 people to the hospital and have a hand in killing at least 23,000 (usually if they also develop complications such as pneumonia). Not to brag, but we are strong enough to render even a totally normal, healthy person gravely ill.

We dread nothing more than the flu vaccine.

We dread nothing more than the flu vaccine.iStock/Thinkstock
It’s the best way to ensure that we can’t wreak havoc. A vaccine provides your immune system with NSA-level intelligence to identify and eradicate us. This season, we’re especially nervous—there’s a new quadrivalent vaccine that protects against four flu strains instead of the usual three. There’s a new vaccine for people who are allergic to eggs and, once again, an extra-strength version for senior citizens. Yikes.

We’re terrified of products labeled “disinfectant.”

We’re terrified of products labeled “disinfectant.”iStock/Thinkstock
This means they’ve been tested for their ability to kill viruses (like me). Cleaning products labeled sanitizer have to kill only bacteria. Disinfectants can take a few minutes to kick in, so if you spray one on a surface and immediately wipe it off, chances are some of us viruses will survive.

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Merely breathing spreads us.

Merely breathing spreads us.Blend Images/Thinkstock
You don’t have to sneeze or cough. A single breath can harbor thousands of us—and we can infect other people a full 24 hours before you exhibit symptoms.

If you’re obese, we can do a real number on you.

If you’re obese, we can do a real number on you.iStock/Thinkstock
We’re up to three times more likely to kill someone who is obese than of normal weight. If extra pounds are squeezing your lungs, it’s harder to breathe and fight us off. Extra weight may make the flu shot less effective too. Score!

You do us a big favor when you’re “too busy” to take a sick day.

You do us a big favor when you’re “too busy” to take a sick day. iStock/Thinkstock
When you drag yourself into the office, you spread us to your coworkers (awesome) and may make it harder for your body to fight us, so you stay sick longer (more awesome). If everyone had access to just one paid sick day for the flu, it could reduce cases by as much as 25 percent! (Shudder!)

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A good hair day for you is a good day for us too.

A good hair day for you is a good day for us too. Fuse/Thinkstock
When there’s less moisture in the air, we can waft around a little longer, which gives us a better chance to infect people.

Thanks for skimping on hand washing.

Thanks for skimping on hand washing. iStock/Thinkstock
Next to the flu vaccine, good hand hygiene is one of your best defenses against us. We recently heard that about 10 percent of people don’t wash their hands before leaving the restroom, and more than 20 percent use water but no soap. Either way, it’s all good. If we linger on your hands and then you touch your eyes, nose, or mouth (trust us, you do this a lot), we get easy access.

Is that Tamiflu you’re taking? Oh, no!

Is that Tamiflu you’re taking? Oh, no! iStock/Thinkstock
Antiviral drugs are our biggest enemy once we’ve succeeded in infecting you. The drugs effectively castrate us. They thwart our ability to keep reproducing, which means they can shorten the length of your illness. Lucky for us, though, there’s a brief ideal window in which to use these medications. They are most effective if you take them within the first 48 hours of having flu symptoms. If you wait too long, we can still run rampant.

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We love children.

We love children. iStock/Thinkstock
They are our biggest spreaders. Kids’ immature immune systems take more time to fight us, so they shed more of us and for longer periods. Children are also delightfully unhygienic. If we infect one child, we likely gain entry to his immediate family and many of his classmates.

Sources: Kelly A. Reynolds, PhD, associate professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Arizona;
William Schaffner, MD, professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University; Pedro Piedra, MD, professor in the department of molecular virology and microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine

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