Mason Experts Offer Tips for Fending Off the Flu

Posted: February 9, 2009 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Marjorie Musick

The winter is winding down but flu season is just getting started. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), flu activity typically does not reach its peak in the United States until January or February and can occur as late as May.

Kathryn Jacobsen
Kathryn Jacobsen
Photo by Evan Cantwell

“February is often the peak month for flu,” says Kathryn Jacobsen, assistant professor in the College of Health and Human Services’ Department of Global and Community Health.

“We expect to see increasing numbers of flu cases all through February, so over the next couple of weeks, everyone should be really careful.”

How can students and faculty and staff members avoid the flu this year? The simple steps below will increase your odds of staying healthy.

Get Vaccinated

The CDC recommends a yearly flu vaccine as the first and most important step in protecting against this serious disease. It’s not too late to get a flu shot.

“Even if flu activity has already started in Virginia, the shot can still offer some protection,” says Jacobsen.

“There are several strains of influenza circulating, and the flu shot is usually effective against the majority of those strains. It is definitely worth getting vaccinated.”

Patrice Levinson
Patrice Levinson
Photo courtesy of Patrice Levinson

According to Patrice Levinson, nurse practitioner at Mason’s Student Health Services, more than 900 people within the Mason community were vaccinated on campus this year. Although there are no longer flu vaccines available at Student Health Services, Levinson recommends that individuals who haven’t been vaccinated check with their doctor’s office since most are still offering the shots.

Wash Your Hands

“The absolute best way to prevent colds and flu is to wash your hands often,” says Jacobsen.

“Wash for at least 15 seconds with warm water, with a bit of scrubbing under the fingernails and up to the wrist. Use the mechanical action of your hands rubbing together to knock the germs off.”

Jacobsen notes that it’s best to use a paper towel to turn off the faucet and open the door so that new germs do not come into contact with your clean hands. She cautions people to be especially vigilant about cleansing after using shared equipment.

“The surfaces of keyboards in public areas are disgusting,” says Jacobsen.

“Some types of infectious agents can live on surfaces for minutes or even hours, which is why it’s so important to always wash your hands frequently, especially after using shared computers or phones.”

Avoid People Who Are Sick

Unfortunately, for students and staff who are living and working in close quarters, it can be difficult to avoid sharing a space with those who are ill. The best defense may be a strong offense. If someone in your workplace or residence hall is sick, make sure that you do not get too close to them.

“The flu and other cold viruses are spread through large droplets which you can get exposed to when someone coughs or sneezes from as close as three feet away,” notes Levinson.

”So it’s important for people to cover their mouths and noses when they cough or sneeze. And when you’re not feeling well, it’s a good idea to stay home.”

Practice General Wellness

“In the winter, it’s cold and dark, and it’s easy to drop your normal healthy habits, but general wellness helps to keep the immune system functioning,” says Jacobsen.

“Things like maintaining regular exercise, eating well and getting 15 minutes of sunlight each day make us happier and healthier. Also, seven to eight hours of sleep is recommended for most adults.”

Eating a nutritious diet with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and taking steps to minimize stress can also be helpful tools in strengthening the body’s natural defenses.

“Any kind of coping strategies people can use to reduce their stress are a great idea. Sometimes the best way is to take a moment to center yourself, breathe deeply and try to be sensitive to the areas of your body that might be stressed,” says Levinson.

“I do recommend that everybody try to get regular daily exercise because that’s a fantastic stress reducer. It also increases the circulating endorphins in your system and sharpens your immune response.”

What to Do If You Get Sick

What should you do if, after following all of the steps above, you still catch the flu?

“With the flu, you wake up all of a sudden and you feel like a truck hit you. You have a fever, sore throat, chills, sweats, cough, runny or stuffy nose, body aches and you’re very tired,” says Levinson.

“We recommend that patients see their health care provider or health services right away if they believe that they have the flu.”

Levinson notes that dehydration is a major concern for flu patients, so affected individuals should drink two to three liters of fluids a day. Clear liquids, like broth, apple juice and Gatorade, will keep you hydrated while not upsetting your stomach.

Also, know when to seek emergency care.

“If you have difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen, sudden dizziness, confusion or severe or persistent vomiting, you need to seek emergency care,” says Levinson.

“If you take your temperature and it’s over 100 degrees, then that means it is definitely time to see your doctor.”

During the semester, Student Health Services is open from 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday; 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesdays; and noon to 5 p.m. on Fridays. For more information, visit shs.gmu.edu.

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