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.
Why we get sick more in colder weather
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:
- The colder temperatures tend to keep people in smaller, contained areas indoors, thereby increasing our exposure to illness when someone is sick.
- Viruses keep their infectious ability stronger — and actually live longer — in dry, low-humidity environments. "This longevity is precisely what happens when the colder months approach," Hanak says. When a person sneezes or coughs, the droplets they emit evaporate more quickly in the drier air. The viruses contained in those droplets remain in the air, to be swept away and onto other people and surrounding surfaces.
- Lots of people travel for Thanksgiving and winter break. In the tightly confined quarters of an airplane, viruses circulate and are shared easily. In addition, large numbers of people pass through airports — carrying viruses with them. "Not surprisingly, airports are one of the two highest-risk areas for the spread of influenza," Hanak says. "The other? Schools."
Given all of these flu-favorable conditions, it's no wonder there's spike in illness around the holidays.
Flu can be a serious, even deadly, illness
The Centers for Disease Control reports the following statistics:
- Five to 20 percent of the population comes down with the flu each year.
- About 200,000 people in the U.S are hospitalized because of the flu each year.
- Since the 1970s, between 3,000 and 49,000 people have died from the flu each year.
Flu is particularly dangerous for children and older adults, who have weaker immune systems to protect them from disease:
- According to the CDC, a record number of children (178) died from influenza during the 2017-18 flu season.
- The CDC estimates that 70 to 90 percent of seasonal flu-related deaths have occurred in people 65 years and older; and 50 to 70 percent of seasonal flu-related hospitalizations have occurred among people in that age group.
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.
"In 2013, young and healthy people were dying due to having an overwhelming immune response to the influenza virus," says Rush emergency medicine specialist Yanina Purim-Shem-Tov, MD.
Getting a flu shot ... is one of the most effective ways to stay healthy this holiday season, especially when traveling.
There's still time to protect yourself
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."
Make your health a priority
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."
Is it the flu or a cold?
How do you know it's not just a cold? Use our guide to see which symptoms could signal the flu.