Woman with blanket, tissues and sneezing.

As the days grow shorter and the air turns crisper, we find ourselves at the threshold of another cold and flu season.

“Influenza generally begins to impact Virginia significantly as early as November,” says John Snellings, MD, Associate Professor of Family and Community Medicine. “Currently we are seeing low statewide influenza activity per the CDC.”

While these seasonal illnesses are a common occurrence, Dr. Snellings says there are steps you can take to protect yourself and your loved ones.

Prevention: Building a Strong Defense

Preventing illness is the first line of defense against the cold and flu. Here are some essential measures to consider:

Hand Hygiene: Regular handwashing with soap and water is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of germs. Remember to scrub for at least 20 seconds, especially after coughing, sneezing or touching high-contact surfaces.

Good Respiratory Hygiene: When you cough or sneeze, do so into a tissue or the inside of your elbow, not your hands. Dispose of used tissues immediately and wash your hands.

Healthy Eating: Maintain a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables. Nutrient-dense foods help support your immune system, providing added protection.

Adequate Rest: Ensure you get enough sleep, as lack of rest can weaken your body's defenses. Aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night.

Stay Active: Regular physical activity can boost your immune system and help you stay fit and healthy.

Recognize Symptoms: Early Detection Matters

Recognizing the early signs of a cold or the flu is crucial for prompt treatment and reducing the spread of the illness. Common symptoms include:

Colds: Runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, sore throat and a mild cough.

Flu: High fever, chills, body aches, fatigue and a severe cough.

If you experience these symptoms, it's advisable to rest at home to prevent the spread of the illness to others.

“The general course of an influenza infection is a few days to two weeks,” Dr. Snellings says. “If a patient is not improving after 7 to 10 days, they should contact their primary care physician for additional guidance.”

The Role of Vaccination: Community Immunity

Getting vaccinated is one of the most effective ways to protect yourself and those around you from the flu. The flu vaccine is formulated each year to match the prevalent strains of the virus. “They are particularly important in higher-risk populations,” Dr. Snellings says. “That includes the elderly, those with chronic medical issues, children and pregnant women.”

Here's why it's important:

Individual Protection: The flu vaccine reduces your risk of getting the flu and its complications, such as pneumonia.

Community Immunity: When a significant portion of the population is vaccinated, it helps protect those who cannot be vaccinated, such as people with certain medical conditions or weakened immune systems.

Reduced Healthcare Burden: Widespread vaccination can reduce the burden on healthcare facilities, helping them manage other medical emergencies.

Keep in mind that it takes about two weeks for the vaccine to provide full protection, so getting vaccinated early in the season is recommended.

As we enter the cold and flu season, taking preventive measures, recognizing symptoms, and getting vaccinated are essential to safeguarding our health and the health of our community. By being proactive and responsible, we can reduce the impact of these seasonal illnesses and enjoy a healthier winter.