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For many of us, the holiday season means family gatherings, parties, shopping and dazzling decorations.
During this festive time of year, you're probably thinking more about flying reindeer than the flu. But November is the start of flu season for a reason: because cold weather makes it easier for viruses to spread — including some that have the potential to be deadly.
"Many people experience an uptick in viral infections, including influenza, during the colder months. And it isn't a coincidence," says Michael Hanak, MD, a primary care doctor at Rush University Medical Center.
Being outside in the cold won't give you a cold or the flu — that's a myth — but Hanak says the cold weather does play a role in how, and how often, we get sick. Here's how:
Given all of these flu-favorable conditions, it's no wonder there's spike in illness around the holidays.
The Centers for Disease Control reports the following statistics:
Flu is particularly dangerous for children and older adults, who have weaker immune systems to protect them from disease:
Even among healthy adults, flu will at the very least cause a person to miss work or school, and will make you feel miserable for days. Symptoms include fatigue, coughing, sneezing, sore throat, runny nose, body aches, and possibly a fever, too.
Particularly harsh strains of the flu, like 2013's H1N1 flu strain, also can have a serious impact on patients outside the high-risk groups.
Getting a flu shot ... is one of the most effective ways to stay healthy this holiday season, especially when traveling.
While the flu virus is rather unpredictable, flu season usually peaks between December and February.
Since it can be difficult to avoid places where the flu is more likely to spread — airports, schools and other crowded indoor spaces like shopping malls and buses — it's important to take steps to protect yourself and your family.
A good place to start: with the flu vaccine, which is available at major drug store chains, health clinics and your doctor's office. It takes two weeks for the vaccine to be fully effective, so the sooner you are vaccinated, the sooner you will be protected.
"Getting a flu shot takes seconds, and often doesn't even require a full office visit," Hanak says. "This is one of the most effective ways to stay healthy this holiday season, especially when traveling."
Other steps you can take to help safeguard your health: Get lots of rest, stay hydrated, eat a healthy diet and manage stress.
All of these things will help to keep your immune system strong, so it can fight off viruses more effectively if you are exposed.
"The holidays have a way of wearing down our immune systems," Hanak says. "The added physical and emotional demands can leave you stressed out and sleep deprived. And a more hectic schedule may also wreak havoc on your diet. So it's essential to carve out time for things — like exercise and sleep — that can help you avoid getting sick."
How do you know it's not just a cold? Use our guide to see which symptoms could signal the flu.
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