Keep the flu from derailing your fitness plans this winter by following these smart suggestions.
by John Post, MD
"Flu Bug Twice as Mean." "Schools on Guard as Flu Deaths Rise." "The Flu Didn’t Take Time Off Over the Holidays."
Newspaper headlines squawk loudly concerning this year's flu epidemic and experts are predicting more to come. In fact, you probably know of a few people who've already had it this year—if you haven't contracted it yet yourself.
Although the typical flu (influenza) season runs from October until the end of March, peaking at the end of January, we’ve already seen more people take ill this year than in an entire normal season. This means that in your community there's currently a lot of flue activity—making it even more crucial to take precautions.
What is the flu?
The flu is a highly contagious virus which produces symptoms of fever and chills, sore throat, body aches and headaches, and coughs. Symptoms usually arise one to three days after being exposed. The good news, if any, is that it usually lasts under a week (although complications have been seen in some, necessitating medical care or even hospitalization).
If you’ve encountered someone with the flu, or may be concerned that you have some of the symptoms listed above, call your medical provider for further guidance. This is particularly true if you have a fever.
If you do have the flu, generally speaking it’s recommended that you stay home and avoid work, school, and yes, exercising/training, until you’ve been without a fever for 24 hours.
How do I protect myself?
Even if you've heard that this year’s flu vaccine doesn't include the current strain, a vaccination is still strongly recommended by the CDC. The vaccine for each year is made up of strains of virus present in the world that year. Even though the current strain is not in the current vaccine, it’s still about 50 percent effective in protecting you—far better than no protection at all.
Flu shots are recommended for everyone over the age of six months, especially anyone considered at high risk of serious flu-related complication. Try to avoid those who are sick and consider wearing a mask if you can’t. Then wash your hands and avoid touching your face. Again, if you are sick, please stay home to prevent spreading the disease.
Fitness and the flu
Here's the biggie for us exercise addicts. What do we do when conditioned to train virtually every day? The answer is simpler than you might think.
If all you have is a cold, you may not need to back off at all. Test yourself, see what makes sense for you as an individual, and then do what you can do. If you can’t do something, don’t. But if your illness includes a fever, a goose egg goes in the log book that day. Exercise raises your internal body temperature, which if already elevated from the illness, could make you a lot sicker. Some doctors list 101 degrees Fahrenheit as a reasonable cut-off, but more often you hear 100. Should you make it to the gym while ill, exercise consideration for others by wiping off everything that you touch. One benefit that a fit lifestyle will bring is likely getting over illness more speedily than our non-fit brethren.
Step 1: See your doctor
Almost all primary care clinics can do a quick test to see if you have the flu. It only takes 15 minutes and they can also look for pneumonia or other viral illness. (As a viral illness, flu is not susceptible to antibiotics.) However, other treatment options may be recommended, possibly including anti-viral medications, Tylenol or ibuprofen to lessen the fever and body aches. Drink plenty of fluids and get plenty of rest.
Step 2: The emergency room
If you do contract the flu know that most patients get over it with rest and time. Some, however, would fare better with emergency treatment. There are no hard and fast rules about when to seek care but, if in doubt, call your doctor and make the decision together. If your doctor feels that the symptoms warrant, you should go to the hospital. In other words, just as you would for any other illness, unless you are experiencing an acute life threatening situation, call your family physician.
9 steps to staying healthy this winter
In summary, here's how an athlete eying the 2017 competitive season, or just simply with ambitious personal fitness goals, should approach this highly contagious time of year.
1. Get a flu shot. If you’re "allergic" to shots, get the flu vaccine nasal spray.
2. Try to avoid direct contact with people who are ill, whether or not they have flu.
3. If you have to go to a doctor’s office, don’t touch anything. Especially the magazines. (This is from my own doctor's wife.) Bring your own reading material.
4. Clean your hands frequently. Try not to touch your mouth, nose or face.
5. If you do have to be around those who are ill, consider wearing a mask.
6. Should come down with the flu, cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when sneezing.
7. If you get the flu, stay home!
8. A fever means no exercise, but a simple cold may just mean some modifications to changes.