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Day-to-day life changed a lot when COVID-19 hit. To curb the spread of the virus, health experts urged us to social distance, wear a mask, and wash our hands all the time. Then a surprising thing happened.

“All the normal respiratory infections we usually get -- from cold and flu viruses -- didn’t happen, which was very dramatic,” says Ellen Foxman, MD, PhD. She’s an immunobiologist at Yale Medicine and an assistant professor of laboratory medicine and immunobiology at Yale School of Medicine.

Foxman says asthma attacks in kids, often triggered by respiratory viruses, also dropped. She hopes that’s a silver lining.

“We learned we can actually reduce some of the spread of these respiratory viruses, and prevent a lot of illnesses, if we try.”

Here are more takeaways and expert tips on how to stay healthy this cold and flu season.

Get Vaccinated

It’s the No. 1 way to lower your odds of getting COVID-19 or the flu. Vaccines also help keep you from spreading viruses to others.

It’s true that you can still catch a virus after you’ve been vaccinated. But your chances of getting very sick go way down.

“The vaccine can convert what would’ve been a really serious illness into mild cold-like symptoms,” Foxman says. “I think any of us would rather have that than be in the hospital.”

Right now, there isn’t an all-in-one vaccine for COVID-19 and the flu. You’ll need to get them separately. Vaccines can sometimes cause side effects that make you feel sick. But don’t worry. Foxman says symptoms such as fever or tiredness are signs your immune system is working. 

Ask your doctor which vaccines are right for you. Some people need extra protection from viruses other than the ones that cause COVID-19 or the flu.

Wear a Mask

Germs spread through big respiratory droplets when you cough or sneeze. And tiny “aerosols” can float through the air when you sing, talk loudly, or exhale. A snug surgical mask or multilayered cloth face covering can lessen how much of these particles you breathe in or out. You might also touch your face less when you wear one.

Richard Martinello, MD, an infectious disease specialist with Yale Medicine and associate professor of medicine at Yale School of Medicine says he and his colleagues will mask-up at work throughout the next cold and flu season.

Michelle Puzio-Bell, DO, an internist with Northwestern Medicine Regional Medical Group, says she doesn’t think the general public needs to wear a mask “all day, every day.” But she says you might want to wear one more often at certain times of year. That includes cold and flu season, when more than one virus is going around. 

Here are some tips on when to wear your mask:

  • Anytime you have cold or flu-like symptoms and are around others
  • Around sick people
  • Inside public places
  • Outdoors in big crowds, especially when respiratory viruses are spreading
  • On planes or other forms of public transportation

The CDC eased mask guidelines for people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. For example, you may not need to wear one outdoors where cases are low. But you might want to “keep your mask handy and wear it when you’re in situations where you may be unable to distance from persons who are not vaccinated, especially indoors,” Martinello says.

Wash Your Hands

Some viruses can live on hard surfaces longer than others. Those germs can make you sick if they get inside your eyes, mouth, or nose.

“A lot of the common cold virus is spread by touching things and then touching your face,” Foxman says.

You can kill or remove germs by washing your hands with regular soap and water. That’s actually the preferred route, Martinello says, especially when you have dirt or grime on your hands. If soap and water aren’t around, hand sanitizer with 60% alcohol is the next best thing.  

Here are some good times to wash or sanitize your hands:

  • Before and after you eat or make food
  • Before and after you’re around a sick person
  • Before and after you touch your mask
  • After you blow your nose, cough, or sneeze
  • After you touch things in public, such as tables, doorknobs, or elevator buttons

Keep Your Distance

Viruses can spread through the air. And germs can linger longer when you’re indoors. That makes it hard to know exactly how much space you’ll need. But in general, physical distancing means having 6 feet between you and another person. This space can lower the odds you’ll come into contact with respiratory droplets, Martinello says.

You can practice physical distancing whenever you want. But during cold and flu season, it might be really good to do it at the following times:

  • Crowded indoor places, such as restaurants, gyms, or bars
  • Indoor spaces with poor airflow
  • Indoor or outdoor spaces when you don’t know who’s vaccinated or sick

If you’re unvaccinated against COVID-19, it’s best to stay 6 feet away from anyone who doesn’t live with you. If that’s not possible, Martinello says it’s safest to always wear a mask.

Stay Home if You’re Sick

This is sometimes called isolation. There isn’t a set rule for how long you should “keep your germs to yourself,” Martinello says. But possibly spreading a respiratory virus to others is pretty high within the first week. That’s when “your body’s just churning out more and more copies of the virus,” Foxman says.

Here are some other tips on when to isolate if you’re sick:

For school. Keep your child home if they have symptoms such as fever, cough, and sneezing. Otherwise, “that’s going to spread things to other children,” Foxman says.

For work. Stay home even when you feel only “a little sick,” Martinello says. If possible, ask your boss if you can work from home until your symptoms go away.

Around certain groups. Take extra caution around people who have other health conditions or a weak immune system. For example, “that could be somebody who has cancer or who’s getting cancer treatment,” Foxman says. “Even if they got the vaccine, their immune system may not work as well as usual.”

If you think or know you have COVID-19, ask your doctor how long you’ll need to stay home. They might want you to meet all the following guidelines:

  • It’s been 10 days since your symptoms started
  • You’ve gone 24 hours with no fever or medicine to treat your fever
  • Other symptoms, besides loss of taste and smell, are getting better

Use All Your Health Tools

There are big and little ways to slow the spread of respiratory viruses. It’s a good idea to do a mix of all these things. Martinello says it’s kind of like driving a car. By that, he means there’s more than one thing you should do to boost your safety.

“When you do all of these reasonable actions, including getting a vaccination, that’s what really protects us.”

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