6 Habits That May Increase Your Chances of Catching the Flu

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Coughing man who is sick and not breathing well
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You’ve probably heard that the United States is undergoing a “triple-demic” right now — a convergence of three contagious respiratory viral illnesses: influenza, COVID-19 and RSV (respiratory syncytial virus).

Hospitals around the country are filling with cases of all three, CBS News reports. Flu season typically doesn’t peak until February and, already, this has been one of the worst flu seasons on record.

Dr. Scott Roberts, a Yale Medicine infectious diseases specialist, credits the uptick of flu to our lack of immunity from not having been exposed to the virus for several seasons due to masking and other precautions against COVID-19.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that between Oct. 1 and Dec. 24 the U.S. had:

  • 20 million to 41 million flu cases
  • 210,000 to 450,000 hospitalizations from flu
  • 13,000 to 39,000 flu deaths

It’s hard to pinpoint flu numbers more precisely because, among other reasons, “seasonal flu illness is not a reportable disease, and not everyone who gets sick with flu seeks medical care or gets tested for flu,” the CDC says.

How can you protect yourself and your family from catching the flu? For one, get a flu shot if you’ve not already had one. It’s not too late to be inoculated; immunity takes about two weeks to kick in, the CDC says.

And there’s plenty more you can do. Avoid the following behaviors to increase your chances of fending off the flu bug.

Being a couch potato

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It feels great to curl up on the couch when the weather outdoors is cold and nasty.

But avoiding exercise primes us not only for a variety of chronic illnesses, including cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes, but also for respiratory infections. We’ve noted elsewhere:

“According to a 2014 study of some 4,800 people by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, doing at least 2.5 hours of vigorous exercise per week reduces your risk of catching the flu or a similar illness by around 10%.”

Here’s how exercise is thought to boost immunity:

“The lowered risk for severe COVID-19 and other ARIs in physically active groups is attributed to exercise-induced immunoprotective effects, including enhanced surveillance of key immune cells and reduced chronic inflammation.”

Touching your face

Woman shocked or embarrassed and making an "oops" face covering her mouth after making a mistake
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Your nose, mouth and eyes all offer opportunities for a respiratory infection like flu to get a foothold.

It was initially thought that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 might be spread on surfaces. It’s not. We later learned that it’s inhaled from droplets spread into the air by individuals who are ill. But the flu, in fact, can be transmitted by touching a contaminated surface.

Here’s how it works, according to the CDC:

“Most experts think that flu viruses spread mainly by droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze, or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby (usually within about 6 feet away) or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. Less often, a person might get flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes.”

Smoking cigarettes

Woman sick with the flu
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Smoking is known to contribute to chronic lung and systemic inflammation by interfering with the immune system, leading to an increased risk that a smoker will catch the influenza virus.

The cycle was described in the journal Pathogens, in 2021. In short, cigarettes are hard on your lungs, making it difficult for them to fight back when they come in contact with a flu virus.

Separately, a research review in The Journal of Infection on the connection between cigarette smoking and flu concludes:

“Current smokers were 5 times more likely to have laboratory-confirmed influenza than non-smokers. Current smokers were 34% more likely to develop an influenza-like illness than non-smokers.”

Vaping

Freezing woman outside
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E-cigarettes, too, are thought to weaken the body’s immune system, increasing the chance for an infection to take hold.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs scientists working at VA San Diego and the University of California San Diego found that, by interfering with a type of white blood cell known as neutrophils, vaping could weaken resistance to infections.

Separate research, at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, adds that vaping produces potentially dangerous chemical fumes similar to those found in nicotine cigarettes.

Not getting enough sleep

Upset businessman holding his head at his computer
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Getting too little sleep or poor quality sleep also is thought to undermine resistance to infections, including flu.

Getting enough sleep won’t guarantee that you won’t catch the flu. But getting at least seven hours of shut-eye can help you resist colds, a 2015 University of California San Francisco study found.

Too little sleep is believed to mess with the body’s production of cytokines. That’s an immune system substance important in fighting cancers, infections and other diseases.

Not washing your hands

Woman washing her hands
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Washing your hands for at least 20 seconds to prevent the spread of bacteria, viruses and other germs is basic healthy behavior around the world today. But that wasn’t always the case.

In 1847, Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis observed that a disease (puerperal fever) found in some hospital patients occurred more often where physicians performed autopsies and also attended to patients.

This was before the common acceptance of germ theory (that certain microscopic organisms spread certain diseases) or routine hand-washing in hospitals.

“The fact of the matter is that the transmitting source of those cadaver particles was to be found in the hands of students and attending physicians,” Semmelweis wrote.

He mandated that people working in his department wash their hands in a chloride solution. His discovery did not endear him to his department head, though, and hand-washing remained controversial for some time.