The Truth Behind This Year’s Record-Breaking Flu Season

As flu seasons go, this one has been a doozy. While it’s been nowhere near the devastation caused by the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which killed 675,000 Americans, it’s perhaps a close second.

As of February 2018, 23,324 people have been hospitalized with confirmed flu-related illnesses, and 114 children, including 45 under age 5, have died, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). (Adult flu deaths will be tallied after the season ends.)

And it’s not over anytime soon. “We have six more weeks of flu season left before we get back to baseline,” says Kristen Nordlund, a CDC spokesperson.

Several factors have made this flu season one of the worst on record:

  • A particularly nasty strain. The CDC tracks more than one strain of influenza, and this year’s dominant strain is the virulent H3N2 variety, which usually packs a greater punch than other virus types. “We know from previous years where H3N2 is dominant that it tends to be a more severe season, especially for the elderly and the very young,” says Nordlund. “We’ve been comparing this season to previous years when H3N2 was dominant. One of those seasons was the 2014–15 season.” The same strain dominated this year. But this time around, it’s worse.
  • Unfortunate timing. “The cumulative hospitalization rate for this year has already surpassed the end-of-season hospitalization rate for that year,” Nordlund says. “We tend to see different parts of the country being hit by the flu at different times. What was different this season was that the flu was everywhere all at once, and it stayed that way for three consecutive weeks. That’s just something we have not seen before.” (Final numbers on flu activity, hospitalizations, and deaths won’t be available until after the epidemic ends.) A possible explanation is that the virus was picking up steam just as people were coming inside from the winter’s cold and congregating at end-of-year holiday functions.
  • The limitations of the flu shot. In general, the influenza vaccine, which is engineered to protect against several flu strains, just isn’t that good at protecting against H3N2 strains. “When H3N2 is put into eggs (as part of the manufacturing process), for some reason, it ends up experiencing changes so it looks a little bit different from the virus that is actually circulating,” Nordlund says. As a result, there’s usually lower vaccine efficacy with H3N2 flu, even when the vaccine is well-matched to what’s circulating at first. The vaccine effectiveness is estimated to be around 25 percent against H3N2, far lower than what public health officials would like to see, which is closer to 60 percent and up.

If there’s any good news, it’s that H3N2 flu is finally starting to lose steam. And although other strains of the flu, including H1N1 and influenza B, are still surging, this year’s vaccine seems to be much more effective against them, says William Schaffner, MD, professor of preventive and infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville.

It’s not too late to get a flu shot, experts say. Even if you come down with the flu—and here are six flu symptoms you shouldn’t ignore, the illness will probably be less severe and you’re less likely to suffer life-threatening complications such as pneumonia.

“A major reason we give the vaccine is to prevent complications,” says Dr. Schaffner. “We often overlook this very positive influence of the vaccine when we talk about effectiveness.”

To keep illness at bay, wash your hands frequently (or using hand sanitizer if you can’t get to the sink). Avoid sick people—even those who say they’re not contagious. And load up on these foods that help prevent colds and flu.

Feel like you are coming down with the flu? Ask your doctor to prescribe an anti-viral medication like Tamiflu, particularly if you’re at a high risk of complications, and stay home until you feel better.

The post The Truth Behind This Year’s Record-Breaking Flu Season appeared first on Reader's Digest.

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How to Treat the Flu: What Doctors Really Do

Understand whether it’s a cold or a flu

Sick businesswoman with winter chills and a fever sitting shivering in the office wrapped in a thick woolly winter scarfstockfour/ShutterstockYou may feel congested and generally lousy for either a cold or a flu, but with the flu, a fever is common, along with achy joints and muscles, fatigue, and pain around the eyes. Here’s how to tell if it’s the flu.

Take a fever reducer

Selective focus of medicine being in hands of a nice adult manYAKOBCHUK VIACHESLAV/ShutterstockThe only approved flu medicine is Tamiflu, which is available by prescription and most effective in the first 48 hours after you develop symptoms. It doesn’t cure the flu, but it does shorten its duration. Beyond that, you can simply treat your symptoms. “Ibuprofen and acetaminophen are the best fever reducers and help with symptoms,” says Nicholas Kman, MD, FACEP, clinical associate professor of Emergency Medicine at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “They are different classes of drugs so you can take both.” Learn how you could be making your cold or flu worse.

Rest up

Cute girl on a soft white bed. She sleeping and relaxing.PaeJar/Shutterstock“One of the most important things you can do for yourself is to allow your body to rest while you are feeling under the weather,” says Ian Tong, MD, chief medical officer at Doctor On Demand. “Resting gives your body a chance to fight off the infection and can help boost your immune system.”

Keep it to yourself

Woman cough at outdoorleungchopan/ShutterstockFlu spreads easily, so if you’re diagnosed with it, it’s best to minimize contact with others. “The best way to prevent spreading flu from an infected family member to others is to use very thorough and frequent hand washing with soap and water,” says Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., chief, Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, Children’s National Health System. “Since influenza is spread by respiratory droplets that are emitted during coughing, speaking or sneezing, using a simple surgical mask may decrease the likelihood of these infected droplets reaching your mucous membranes and infecting you. Some studies have shown a 70 percent reduction in household spread of influenza virus by wearing a simple surgical mask in conjunction with good hand washing.” And her best advice? Stay home. “Stay away from public places for at least 24 hours after your fever resolves, and avoid close contact with others for at least seven days after your symptoms resolve, because you can still spread the flu virus to others.”

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Stay hydrated

 Nice girl drinking teaDmytro Zinkevych/ShutterstockGetting fluids could be one of the biggest secrets for how to treat the flu. “It is important to hydrate when sick with influenza,” Dr. Kman says. “Fluid rich foods like fruits and vegetables help with hydration as do soups. Drink sports drinks to help with hydration and electrolytes. Alcohol and caffeine are both diuretics so avoid these as much as possible.” These 12 things need to be part of your DIY flu-fighting kit.

Hit the showers

Man warming up in the showerMerla/ShutterstockWhen you’re feeling particularly icky, a shower can help alleviate some of your symptoms. “If you are experiencing a chill or a fever, taking a warm bath or cool shower could offer some comfort,” Dr. Tong says. “Adding shower or bath bombs containing eucalyptus, menthol, or other essential oils could make the experience more pleasant.” Try these essential oils to help with your flu symptoms.

Treat your respiratory symptoms

Illness And Sickness. Closeup Of Beautiful Woman Feeling Sick Dripping Nasal Drops In Blocked Nose. Portrait Female Sprays Cold And Sinus Medicine In Runny Nose. Sinusitis treatment. High Resolutionpuhhha/Shutterstock“Over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamines such as Benadryl or Claritin can help minimize the occurrence of coughing and sneezing,” Dr. Tong says. “Nasal steroids like Flonase can help decrease sinus inflammation, which can decrease the pressure and pain you may experience during a cold or flu. Over-the-counter nasal saline sprays and rinses, which consist of salt added to distilled water, are great ways to help clean out your nasal cavity and sinuses.”

Eat healthy

Selection of healthy food for heart, life conceptAntonina Vlasova/ShutterstockYou may have heard to “starve a fever and feed a cold,” but doctors say that’s definitely not how to treat the flu. “A healthy diet that includes a regular supply of proteins, fruits, and vegetables is important to maintain normal immune function,” Dr. DeBiasi says. “This allows for the body to maintain a normal balance of vitamins that may impact overall immune function, including vitamins D and C and others.” Try these natural flu remedies.

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Take some Vitamin C

Composition of orange cut glass with juicedavidsansegundo/ShutterstockStock up on orange juice or vitamin C supplements. “Daily vitamin C of at least 200mg/day has been shown to shorten the duration of cold symptoms in children,” Dr. Tong says. Want to get your vitamins the old-fashioned way? Stock up on these vitamin C-rich foods.

Know when it’s time to hit the ER

medicine, age, health care and people concept - senior man and doctor with tablet pc computer meeting in medical office at hospitalSyda Productions/ShutterstockThis year’s flu strain has hit particularly hard—and certain categories of patients can be more at risk of developing complications from the flu. People over 65, young children and pregnant women face significant risks, along with those with underlying chronic conditions, such as asthma, or lung or heart disease. “While anyone can get sick with flu and become severely ill, some people are more likely to experience severe flu illness,” Dr. Kman says. “High fever greater than 103 or fever associated with cough may be pneumonia and should be evaluated by a healthcare provider. Other possible serious complications triggered by flu can include inflammation of the heart (myocarditis), brain (encephalitis) or muscle (myositis, rhabdomyolysis) tissues, and multi-organ failure (respiratory and kidney failure). If you are confused, have chest pain, or changes in your urine/decreased urination, seek medical attention.” Learn the signs of pneumonia.

Be prepared next year

An Image of A VaccinationKPG_Payless/ShutterstockAn ounce of prevention is worth a pound of flu treatment. Flu immunizations help reduce the chances that you develop a severe case of the flu—particularly if you get the vaccine every year. “A recent study in Spain showed that the risk of flu may be lower with annual vaccination,” says Dr. Kman. “Older adults who receive flu shots each year are less likely to be hospitalized with severe influenza infections or to die from them than those who get vaccinated only sporadically. “Most of the patients I am seeing in the emergency room have not been vaccinated which would make one think that vaccinated folks are getting a milder version. I would favor getting the vaccine every year given the uncertainty of the strains that will be covered by the shot.” Make sure you aren’t doing any of these things that make the flu worse, either.

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Winter Foods You Should Eat to Prevent Colds and Flu

Root vegetables

roasted carrotsShebeko/Shutterstock

As an all-star warrior that shortens the duration of colds and improves symptoms, vitamin C is an essential nutrient for cold-weather months, explains registered dietitian Michele Gilson of Kaiser Permanente. Yes, oranges are a good source, says Gilson, but so are root vegetables, which makes them a smart addition to soups and stews. Focus on beets, turnips, parsnips, and carrots, among many others.

Green tea

Leaves of floral tea on a metallic background top viewZadorozhnyi Viktor/Shutterstock

Gilson says green tea is an ideal hot beverage choice for the winter season. It delivers minerals and vitamins that help build your immune system. “It has more health benefits than other caffeinated teas because of the way it’s processed: The leaves are dried and lightly steamed, not fermented like other black teas,” she explains. “The tea has catechins—a type of antioxidant—that can help ward off viruses.”

Here are some more surprising benefits of green tea.


Hot breakfast of healthy oatmeal with shredded coconut, blackberries, blueberries, walnuts, heart shaped strawberries and pumpkin seeds over a rustic background. Image shot from overhead.Stephanie Frey/Shutterstock

Push those Cheerios aside and make room for oatmeal, a healthier meal choice in winter, according to Gilson. “There is a load of zinc and soluble fiber in there. Zinc helps the immune system and the fiber helps keep you feeling warm and fuller for longer,” she explains. Maybe skip the butter and brown sugar, and instead top your bowl with dried fruit or fresh fruit—it’ll be even better for you.

Make your oatmeal taste 10 times better with these great recipes.

Brussels sprouts

Brussels Sprouts. Fresh Brussels Sprouts On Napkin Over Table. top view. casanisa/Shutterstock

Time to start experimenting with potentially unfamiliar greens: Many of these vegetables heal and help your body in immeasurable ways. Maybe give Brussels sprouts another chance. They’re delicious when topped with turkey sausage or paired with spices, and these all-powerful veggies will help you ward off illness, according to Brittany Stucklen, a nutritionist at Medifast Weight Control Centers of California. Not only do Brussels sprouts feature antioxidants that scare away the sniffles, but they also promote strong bones.

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Butternut squash

Halved roasted butternut squash with spicy filling viewed overhead on a rustic flat metal plate with spoons and copyspace for healthy seasonal autumn cuisinestockcreations/Shutterstock

Take advantage of butternut squash as the snow pours down and the thermometer continues to drop. Stucklen says this vegetable will deliver the nutrients your body is craving this time of year: vitamin A, potassium, and fiber. “Adding butternut squash to your winter diet decreases the risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease,” she explains.


fresh green organic kale leaves on dark background. top view.Anna Shepulova/Shutterstock

Looking for a fresh alternative to soup? Stucklen has an option: kale salad. It will give you the health benefits of dark leafy greens you usually get from a salad. “Kale is rich in vitamins A, C, K, and E, and is filled with iron, calcium, manganese, and potassium. Use it in any dish or make it for your lunch break,” Stucklen recommends. Try some of these kale recipes we just can’t get enough of.


pomegranate seeds over black backgroundSimone Andress/Shutterstock

This winter fruit has a short shelf life and can be tough to peel, Stucklen says, but it’s worth the extra effort. Not only do the fruits potent antioxidants and anti-inflammatories keep you from contracting a cold, but they can protect your heart as well by helping lower blood pressure and cholesterol. Pop the seeds for lunch or on top of your oatmeal or salad.


Potato. Roasted potatoes. American potatoes with salt pepper and cumin. Roasted potato wedges delicious crispy.Marian Weyo/Shutterstock

Your body craves warmth this time of year, which is why naturopath and author Lynn Anderson, PhD, ND, suggests selecting heat-producing foods like potatoes and yams. They help your circulation system stay productive and serve as adequate fuel for long days of shoveling snow or chasing snow-angel-making kiddos.

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Delicious baked pumpkin with thyme and chili on the wooden table, top view.Fedorovacz/Shutterstock

This squash deserves a role in your life beyond Halloween and Thanksgiving pies. Nutritionist Maya Feller, RD, explains that pumpkin is loaded with beta-carotene and is a wonderful source of fiber which can help prevent mindless snacking during the long nights near your kitchen.

Learn more about pumpkin’s impressive health benefits here.


Avocado. Avocado spread. Avocado pasta. Guacamole with copy spaceNatali Zakharova/Shutterstock

A requirement for guacamole, a best friend to toast, and a beloved go-to for nearly every health nut, avocados are a smart choice year round, Feller explains. They deliver healthy monounsaturated fats and contain a variety of vitamins and minerals all of which can protect your heart and help boost your immunity. And if you close your eyes as you eat your avocado, you can imagine you’re on a warm beach in Mexico.

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Things to Know About the Flu Virus

Doctors Reveal the Most Bizarre Things Patients Have Swallowed

Think we’re just a cold? Ha! David Goldin for Reader’s Digest Underestimate us at your peril. Each year on average, we send 200,000 people to the hospital and have a hand in killing at least 23,000 (usually if they also develop complications such as pneumonia). Not to brag, but we are strong enough to render […]

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Dog Flu Symptoms: Signs of Dog Flu

Things to know about dog flu

DogLook Studio/Shutterstock

Canine influenza is a virus that attacks the respiratory tract of dogs. It’s highly contagious, spreading from dog to dog via coughs, sneezes, barking, and saliva from toys and bowls. While canine influenza is not the same strain of influenza as human influenza and is not zoonotic (aka it cannot be transferred to humans), it’s certainly spreading like wildfire in dogs across the country. According to Newsweek, dog flu has been diagnosed across the United States and has even spread up into Canada.

Find out the silent signs your dog is sick.

How can you tell if your dog is sick?


Dogs can be stoic and hide symptoms of disease very well, so sometimes it’s hard to tell your companion is under the weather. Dr. Heather Dean of Colquitt Animal Hospital in Georgia says, “Infections can cause mild to severe illness in dogs. Some dogs may develop secondary bacterial infections which may lead to more severe illness and pneumonia.” And with super common respiratory symptoms, dog flu can look like other, less serious illnesses, so it’s important to address any abrupt changes or sudden onset symptoms as soon as possible. Find out the 50 secrets your dog won’t tell you.

Dog flu symptom: Nasal discharge

DogMiroslava Levina/Shutterstock

An early symptom of canine influenza is a thick, yellow, or greenish nasal discharge. More than just a sniffle, this mucus can come on quickly and last as long as three weeks.

Dog flu symptom: Lack of appetite

DogDenis Kurov/Shutterstock

While it may not be uncommon for some dogs to skip a meal, lack of appetite can also be a red flag for a more serious condition. If it’s accompanied by any other abnormal behaviors or signs of illness, is unusual for your pet, or goes on for a few days, call the vet.

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Dog flu symptom: Trembling or shivering

DogPitipat Usanakornkul/Shutterstock

Often associated with cold, trembling or shivering is also a classic sign of fever and can also be a pain response. If your pooch has a case of the shivers but is not in a cold environment (and is not a chihuahua!), it could mean he or she has a fever.

Dog flu symptom: Lethargy


The flu can make even the most stalwart feel awful, and your dog is no exception. If your normally boisterous puppy is lying around, not interested in normal, day-to-day routines, he might be sick. Keep an eye on him and if you notice any other troubling symptoms or behaviors, it could be a symptom of dog flu.

Dog flu symptom: Increased body temperature

DogMarina Plevako/Shutterstock

Normal body temperature for a healthy dog can be anywhere from 100 to 102 degrees Fahrenheit, so a temperature of 104 to 105 is notable. They will feel warm to the touch and their gums may be dry and tacky or bright pink. Do not give your dog over the counter human anti-inflammatories for fever, as ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and many other human medicines are deadly for dogs. If you think your dog has a fever, you should call your veterinarian. All dog owners should know these 12 foods that could kill your dog.

Dog flu symptom: Glassy eyes

DogAnna Hoychuk/Shutterstock

Similar to humans, dogs can also develop a glassy-eyed stare when they have a fever. If you suspect your pet has a fever, talk to your vet.

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Dog flu symptom: Coughing

DogJaromir Chalabala/Shutterstock

The most common of all dog flu symptoms is a persistent cough. This type of cough can last anywhere from 10 to 21 days and is a hallmark symptom of canine influenza. Cough should not be treated with human cough suppressants as they can harm your pooch. Seek treatment from your veterinarian.

Dog flu symptom: Sneezing

DogJaromir Chalabala/Shutterstock

Just like in human flu, canine influenza causes upper respiratory symptoms, including sneezing. The accompanying nasal discharge can make sneezing messy and fairly constant through the duration of the illness.



If you think your dog may be exhibiting dog flu symptoms, call your vet and schedule and appointment. When you arrive for your appointment, Dr. Dean recommends briefly leaving your dog in the car while you quickly let the receptionist know you’re there. “The veterinarian may wish the pet to remain in the car until they can be moved directly into an exam room or take other precautions to prevent contaminating the lobby and infecting any patients who may be waiting to be seen.” Ask the receptionist to call your phone when they’re ready for you so you can sit with your dog in your car while you wait. Read these 50 secrets veterinarians won’t tell you.



If your dog is unvaccinated for canine influenza, avoid dog parks and groomers, boarding facilities, and doggie daycares. Clean all leashes and toys. Also, discuss whether the dog flu vaccine is appropriate for your pup. If your dog never leaves home and doesn’t come into contact with other dogs, the vaccine might be unnecessary as risk of infection is low.

It’s also important to know these warning signs of cancer in dogs.

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The Best Cold and Flu Medicine to Always Have Handy

Common cold or the flu?

healthcare, medicine and drugs concept - pills, nasal spray, antipyretic syrup and glass on wooden table

From a sore throat and stuffy nose to coughing and body aches, the common cold and the flu share similar symptoms. “Sometimes, it is difficult to determine which you have,” says Steven Sperber, MD, chief of infectious diseases at Hackensack University Medical Center. With the flu, you often have a fever and feel wiped out and physically sick, while a cold has a slower onset with less intense symptoms. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the flu can lead to hospitalization and even death, especially among young children, those with chronic medical conditions, and older adults. While both are often treated with similar over-the-counter medications, it’s important to understand the different types that are available before you can find the best cold and flu medicine to relieve your symptoms.

The post The Best Cold and Flu Medicine to Always Have Handy appeared first on Reader's Digest.

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Signs You’re Getting Sick: Symptoms of Flu, Viruses, and More

You’ve got chills (and they’re multiplying)


“There are certain illnesses that have an abrupt onset, where one minute you’re well, and then suddenly, you’re not,” says Steven Lamm, MD, clinical professor of medicine and medical director of the Tisch Center for Men’s Health at NYU Langone Medical Center. That’s very typical of influenza. Flu symptoms include the rapid onset of chills and fatigue, says Dr. Lamm. When you’re coming down with a virus like a cold, you’re more likely to feel mild fatigue or a scratchy throat; symptoms come on more slowly than for flu. Abrupt shaking, chills, and fever are usually signs of influenza or a bacterial infection that needs to be examined soon, suggests Dr. Lamm. Here are some more clear signs a cold is coming—and what to do about it.

You’re sweating like a truck driver in Texas


Sweating often accompanies fever and chills as part of everyday viral and bacterial infections. But if you’re soaking through your clothes and sheets (and you don’t normally have night sweats), let your doctor know. Being drenched in sweat when you aren’t exercising, exerting energy, or doing battle with a known infection is likely cause for concern. It could just be overactive sweat glands or menopause, but serious conditions that cause excessive sweating include cancer, heart disease, glucose control issues, lung disease, or medication side effects. These are the signs excessive sweating is something serious.

Your stomach is mad at you


Vague nausea, some abdominal cramping, or a little diarrhea are early signs that your stomach is off. When someone has gastroenteritis (inflammation of the lining of the GI tract caused by bacteria or a virus), they might experience nausea, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and vomiting. Most people recover without treatment but be sure to drink fluids, since dehydration is common when you have this illness. Here are some tips for preventing the stomach flu.

You’ve got a temperature


If you’re sneezing, have a headache, or feel sluggish this spring, you may be wondering if you’re coming down with a cold or just suffering from allergies. When you have a cold you feel sick and generally have a low-grade temperature, says Dr. Lamm. (These other cold symptoms will definitely surprise you.) With allergic rhinitis and hay fever, you may feel congested and have repetitive sneezing, but if you tend to feel this way every spring and fall and don’t have a temperature, it’s likely just seasonal allergies.

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Your appetite is MIA


If you’re coming down with gastroenteritis, you might have a sense of abdominal fullness where you don’t feel like eating. Not having an appetite or not enjoying foods you normally do could also signal that you’re on the brink of becoming ill with other kinds of infections, from a cold to strep throat. Here’s what you really should try to eat when you have a cold or the flu.

You feel mentally blah


Feel irritable or down in the dumps? Don’t want to jump out of the bed even though you’re normally a morning exerciser?  These telltale signs could mean you’re coming down with something. “[When you’re getting sick] there’s mild depression in that you don’t want to go out with your friends, you don’t want to go shopping, or do things you enjoy … these are clues that something is brewing,” says Dr. Lam. Try some of these natural cold remedies the next time you’re coming down with something.

Bottom line: Pay attention to your body


“A lot of people get into trouble with their health because they don’t tune in to what their bodies are telling them,” says Dr. Lamm. Listen to the severity, abruptness, and duration of symptoms you’re feeling. “When your body is ill, it needs to focus all of its energy on the immune system and healing,” says Dr. Lamm. So cut yourself some slack, focus on rest, stay hydrated, eat well-balanced meals, and call your doctor if you experience sudden changes.

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Yes, You Can Catch the Flu by Breathing

healthcare, medicine, flu and treatment concept - cup of tea, paper wipes and thermometer with pillsSyda Productions/Shutterstock

A sneeze. Contaminated doorknobs. Coughing. That’s how flu germs are spread, right? Yes, but now it turns out that even if you’re fastidious about washing your hands and avoiding coughers and sneezers, you can still be exposed. A new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reveals you can catch the flu simply by breathing.

After recruiting 142 flu patients, researchers at the University of Maryland analyzed the air around the volunteers for the next three days. They discovered that 48 percent of the samples contained enough virus to infect another person—no coughing required.

“We found that flu cases contaminated the air around them with infectious virus just by breathing, without coughing or sneezing,” explained lead researcher Donald Milton, MD, MPH, professor of environmental health at the University of Maryland School of Public Health in a press release. “People with flu generate infectious aerosols (tiny droplets that stay suspended in the air for a long time) even when they are not coughing, and especially during the first days of illness. So when someone is coming down with influenza, they should go home and not remain in the workplace and infect others.”

What can you do? First, make sure you know the six signs that you might be coming down with something. And get a flu vaccination: It might not be perfect, but it is the best proven protection against those sneaky virus particles floating in the air. Finally, show this to your coworkers and remind them it’s their duty to take time off when they’re sick!

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