It's not even December and more than 90 people across the United States have died from influenza this season.
Health officials have been warning Americans for weeks to prepare for the flu season for exactly this reason: Reports of flu-related deaths are starting to trickle in as prime flu season approaches, and state health departments around the country are beginning to announce fatalities (such as this announcement from South Dakota).
In that state, upwards of 35 "lab-confirmed cases of the flu and 8 flu-related hospitalizations" have already occurred. Elsewhere in North Carolina, four people have died from contracting the flu, according to the Winston-Salem Journal. Many states have reported news of people passing from flu sickness as December approaches, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting that at least 91 people have died from influenza across the nation since October 1.
Given that flu season is very much a threat to health between now and late March, it's looking like this year could be as deadly as ever (if not more so). Last year, more than 80,000 Americans died from the flu, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.
What can you do to protect yourself from the flu, you may ask? If you haven't received a flu shot yet, there is time.
"It's not too late to get vaccinated for this flu season, and if you haven't yet received your annual flu vaccination, the time to do so is now," writes Joshua Clayton, an epidemiologist in the South Dakota Department of Health, in a statement.
More on keeping yourself healthy this winter season:
- Do You Have the Flu—Or Just a Cold? Here's How to Tell
- 5 Ways the Flu Can Affect Your Health Even After You Get Better
- Can You Get Sick from the Flu Shot?
You already know that the flu is highly infectious, spreading through "respiratory droplets released when an infected person coughs or sneezes,” according to the South Dakota Department of Health, which added that the viral sickness can lead to a high fever, severe cough, sore throat, and fatigue, among other symptoms.
But preventing the flu is much more that just keeping your hands clean (although proper hand washing is very important, too).
Beyond washing your hands properly and getting a flu shot, we're walking you through four more ways you can keep yourself in tip-top shape this flu season:
Watch What You Eat
It goes without saying, but a healthy diet can help your immune system ward off any harmful bacteria. Sticking to a well-balanced, wholesome diet during the winter months is more important than ever, says Michele Leder, MD, an internal medicine physician based in New York—focus on lots of fresh produce, whole grains, and lean protein. Anything on this list of six foods that naturally boost your immune system would be a good choice.
Avoiding added sugars can also help reduce inflammation and cutting back on alcohol consumption can also aid your health, Leder says.
"It's an immunosuppressant," she explains. "And a lot of over-the-counter remedies may contain some amount of alcohol."
Steer Clear of Public Places
If there's any time to hole up in your own kitchen, it's flu season—the virus is highly contagious and can linger in the system for up to a day before symptoms develop, according to the CDC. Try to spend as little time as possible in busy public places like grocery stores, restaurants, shopping malls, and movie theaters, Leder said.
Get Some Exercise
We know that recent research suggests that failing to exercise can actually cause you to be more stressed than ever—and poor mental health can also increase your chances of contracting the flu. Leder said that chronic stress influences cortisol levels, which in turn increase natural inflammation and puts you at risk for infections, including the flu.
Cover Your Mouth—Yes, Really
Preventing the spread of the flu becomes much easier if you take time to cough and sneeze into the crook of your arm or into a tissue. Bacteria is less harmful when it comes into contact with fabric or a tissue, the CDC says, which is why it's so important to make it a habit this winter. You'd be helping keep those around you that much safer, and should be doing so every day.