Winter is still here, bringing its usual array of symptoms—cough, nasal congestion, fatigue, and fever—and this year a new variant of COVID-19 dominates the scoreboard.
COVID-19 leads hospital admissions among respiratory viruses, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Last week, 25 states in the country recorded high or very high levels of respiratory illnesses with fever, cough and other symptoms. That’s a drop from the previous week, when it was 37 states, the CDC said.
Since October, there have been at least 16 million cases of respiratory illness, 180,000 hospitalizations and 11,000 deaths from influenza so far this season. The CDC said 47 children have died from the flu.
January can be the worst month for these diseases. At a time when vaccination rates are low, what can you do to protect yourself from respiratory viruses, including influenza, COVID-19, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)?
GET BACK TO THE BASICS
Handwashing remains crucial to reducing the spread of viral infections. Take your time at the sink. Twenty seconds are recommended. If you feel uncomfortable singing “Happy Birthday” twice while scrubbing with soap and water, count to 20. Slowly.
Use hand sanitizer with 60% alcohol when you don’t have access to soap and water.
Also, wear a mask in crowded areas. Increase ventilation in your workplace and at home.
IT’S NOT TOO LATE TO GET VACCINED
In the United States, only 17% of those eligible have received the updated COVID-19 vaccine, which provides good protection against the currently predominant JN.1 variant.
It’s not too late to roll up your sleeves and show your arm. When doing so, make sure you have received your annual flu vaccine. It is recommended that people age 60 and older receive the RSV vaccine, which is also recommended during pregnancy to prevent RSV in babies.
IF YOU HAVE CHILDREN AT HOME
Young children seem to catch all the germs that are out there. Can your parents avoid getting sick?
This time of year, children are indoors with other children and touching the same toys and surfaces, said Jennifer Sonney of the University of Washington School of Nursing in Seattle. Some have not learned to cover their mouth when they cough and simply have not been exposed to many diseases, so their immune system is still developing.
It’s important to take care of yourself if you are a parent or caregiver of young children, added Sonney, past president of the National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners.
“We know that if you’re sleep deprived or dehydrated or experiencing a lot of stress, that can compromise your immune function,” Sonney explained.
Having young children is very demanding, “so all this advice must be interpreted within the context of reality,” he added. “Despite doing everything right, children will still catch colds.”
A special note if your baby is sick: It’s a good idea to have saline drops and an infant nasal aspirator at home. They can be used to remove mucus from the small nasal passages.
Apply “a couple of drops of saline solution to one nostril and suction it, and then apply it to the other side,” Sonney said. “Doing that before eating and sleeping will be a big help.”
A home kit for kids might also include acetaminophen or ibuprofen for fever, tissues for a runny nose, and water bottles or straw cups to keep them hydrated.
DO A TEST TO KNOW WHAT THE TREATMENT SHOULD BE
If you get sick, timely testing can help determine if you have COVID-19 or the flu. It is important to know if you need any of the medications that can help prevent serious illness: Paxlovid for COVID-19 and Tamiflu for influenza.
If you don’t have a test kit at home, find a treatment testing site at a pharmacy clinic or nearby health center. There is also a free home testing and treatment program for adults who are uninsured or rely on government health insurance.
The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Scientific and Educational Media Group. The AP is solely responsible for all content.