It’s that time again. The signs are up in pharmacies to get your flu shot. TV anchors are telling their viewers that last year’s influenza season was bad, really bad! Is there any way you can avoid the flu this winter?

The CDC reports that 80,000 people died last year. That’s more than in any flu season in recent memory. Millions were miserable. Hospitals were overwhelmed and had to set up tents in parking lots to handle the crush. At least 900,000 people were hospitalized because of the flu, way more than in a typical year.

Will a Flu Shot Help You Avoid the Flu?

With such scary statistics, it is hardly any wonder that public health authorities are encouraging people to get their flu shot now. That’s pretty much the same message we get every year about this time. But if the flu shot is so great, how come it didn’t do a better job protecting people last flu season?

The overall effectiveness of the flu vaccine last year was 40 percent, though for older people effectiveness was just half that. Such statistics are not unusual. Over the last dozen years, the overall effectiveness of flu vaccines averages out to 41 percent.

Even more alarming, however, was the vaccine performance against H3N2. This virulent strain of influenza was responsible for much of the illness and many of the deaths last season. The shot was only 24 percent effective against this nasty infection. Older people only got 17 percent protection. In Great Britain, scientists found that immunization against H3N2 strains was only 5 percent effective for people over 65 (Euro Surveillance, Sep. 2018).

Still, any protection may be better than none. The CDC points out that 80 percent of the children who died of flu last year had not been vaccinated. The agency is urging everyone over the age of six months to get immunized before November. No matter how effective the vaccine, it can’t help anyone who doesn’t receive it.

What Will This Year’s Flu Season Be Like?

No one knows whether this year’s flu season will be brutal, like last year, or relatively light. We can hope for less intensity, since that is what the Southern hemisphere has experienced. Our pattern of influenza infection is often similar to the pattern of the flu season just finishing up in Australia and South America. We really won’t know how bad the flu season is or how well the vaccine works except in retrospect. However, the CDC and the FDA are predicting that the vaccine this year should be a better match and provide better protection than last year.

How Can You Avoid the Flu?

What else can you do to avoid the flu? Experts emphasize the importance of hand washing. A Chinese study showed that people who were most conscientious about washing their hands with soap were least likely to get the flu (Medicine, March 2016).

Another approach that would help would be to have people with symptoms such as fever, sore throat, runny nose and cough stay home from school or work. It’s very easy for people to spread flu viruses around the office just by touching computers, desks, chairs and door knobs or wall switches (International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, Aug. 9, 2018). This study found that wearing masks is much more effective than hand-washing in preventing the spread of influenza. So is frequent disinfection of high-touch surfaces. Unfortunately, most workplaces don’t incorporate these precautions easily. Combining face mask use and intense hand washing can reduce the spread of influenza, though (BMC Infectious Diseases, Jan. 26, 2012). When flu threatens, a smart person will adopt these measures.

Will Green Tea Help You Avoid the Flu?

One other simple approach that may help: drinking or gargling with green tea. Studies suggest that catechin compounds in green tea can keep flu viruses from latching on to cells and may improve the immune response (Molecules, July 2018). On the other hand, Japanese investigators found that high school students who gargled with green tea were just as likely to catch influenza as those who gargled with water (PLoS One, May 16, 2014). However, the high school students were not very consistent about gargling with either liquid. In summary, to avoid the flu you may wish to get vaccinated, wear a face mask and wash your hands conscientiously during flu season and possibly gargle with green tea.

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