Staying healthy this cold and flu season

A lady lays on the couch holding her head with a tissue in her hand.

Cold and flu season is back in full swing. As temperatures outside drop, so does your immune system defences – making you more open to germs living on surfaces or that lurk in the air.

It’s important to know the best ways to protect you and your family from getting sick.

We spoke with Dr. Alon Vaisman, infectious diseases and infection control physician at UHN, on key prevention methods to help protect yourself from seasonal viruses such as the common cold, flu and the stomach flu.

What can we do protect ourselves?

Prevention is key when protecting you and your family from the cold and flu. For the flu, the easiest and most important prevention method is to get the flu shot. “Everyone is eligible for vaccination unless you’re allergic to a component of the vaccine,” says Dr. Vaisman. “Aside from that, everyone can and should get vaccinated. If you’re immunocompromised, the vaccine may not work as well but it’s still recommended that you get vaccinated.”

Practicing good hand hygiene is also essential for preventing the transmission of cold and flu germs. Washing your hands after touching high-touch surfaces in public spaces, before and after eating, entering and leaving public transit are all important practices. Dr. Vaisman also recommends masking in highly concentrated public spaces such as public transit where there’s poor air filiation and ventilation.  

Dr. Vaisman’s top prevention tips

Dr. Alon Vaisman
Dr. Alon Vaisman, Infectious Diseases and Infection Control Physician
  • Get your flu shot
  • Wash your hands: hand hygiene is one of the most effective ways of preventing the spread of cold and flu germs
  • Avoid touching your face: you may not realize how frequently you touch your face. If your hands are dirty or you touch a dirty surface then you touch your face, you are transferring these germs near your nose and mouth which increases your chances of getting sick.
  • Wear a mask or other PPE
  • If you are sick, stay home: avoid contact with others while sick and communicate that you are sick to avoid spreading cold and flu germs

Is it a cold, flu or COVID-19?

Dr. Vaisman notes you are unlikely to be able to distinguish between cold, flu and COVID-19. With COVID-19, people can experience a loss of taste, appetite and smell. However, these symptoms can overlap with cold and flu symptoms. “Cough, sore throat, discharge from the nose, fever, potential fatigue, muscle aches, headache, they all overlap to such an extent you can’t distinguish a cold from other respiratory viruses,” says Dr. Vaisman. “If you experience symptoms that aren’t cold or flu related, you should do a rapid test to determine if you have COVID-19.”

What’s the difference between the flu and the stomach flu?

This time of year, is not only a hotbed for the cold and flu but it’s also peak season for norovirus, better known as the stomach flu. Norovirus is a highly contagious virus with the common symptoms of nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach pain. “There’s a lot of myths around influenza and other respiratory viruses. The stomach flu and the flu are two different viruses. When we talk about cold and flu season, we often neglect talking about norovirus, which is a gastric virus and survives on surfaces and cooler temperatures,” says Dr. Vaisman. “It’s not a respiratory virus but it is more prevalent in the winter and transmission is easier in congregate settings where people are sharing food and eating.”

Can we boost our immune systems?

Your first line of defence for supporting a healthy immune system is leading a healthy lifestyle. Your immune system helps to protect your body and fight germs and infections. A healthy immune system starts with getting enough sleep, eating well and staying active. “People often look for shortcuts or a silver bullet – take this drug, pill or herb,” says Dr. Vaisman. “In reality, there’s no pill that will help boost your immune system. Prevention of flu and other viruses depends on your health and the common sense things we do to keep ourselves healthy will prevent you from getting sick.”

Learn more about Dr. Alon Vaisman and his work at UHN here.

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