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Make the holidays about family, not the flu

Rosalind Penney

With the beautiful dusting of the first snow comes the holidays’ less-celebrated counterpart: flu season. While holiday gatherings are a wonderful time to share laughter and fun, they can also be a way to share flu and other viruses.

In Colorado, the first two months of flu season have brought 517 hospitalizations, with 222 just in the last week of November. This is higher than usual for this time of year. But as rough as our flu season has started out, it is fighting for the spotlight with other respiratory diseases like RSV and COVID-19.

RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, is a common virus that usually causes mild cold-like symptoms. While many people who contract RSV recover in a week or two, the virus can be very serious, especially for infants and older adults. Since Oct. 1, there have been more than 1,400 hospitalizations because of RSV in Colorado, and that is just in the five-county Denver metro area! While RSV is not reportable in our area, we have had many cases reported through child care outbreaks, and have learned of several hospitalizations. While we have all had our fill of COVID-19, it is important to note that this virus has started its winter wave and is aching to share some holiday cheer with everyone gathered around the table. In short, respiratory virus season is off to a robust start.

But fear not, there are some tried-and-true ways to avoid flu and other respiratory viruses so you can enjoy all the fun that winter can bring.

Most importantly, be sure to get your annual flu shot (and COVID-19 booster). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a yearly vaccine for everyone 6 months of age and older. This boost will not only decrease the severity and duration of any flu illnesses you may encounter this winter, but it will give all of those around you a better chance at being healthy as well. While the flu vaccine cannot give you flu illness, some people will experience mild symptoms, such as soreness at the injection site, aches or a low-grade fever. These will be short-lasting. There are different vaccines to meet the different needs of people, including those who are older than 65 and those allergic to eggs. However, anyone who has previously experienced a severe allergic reaction to the flu vaccine, regardless of the component suspected of being responsible for the reaction, should not get a flu vaccine again.

In addition to getting your flu shot and staying up to date with COVID-19 boosters, here are some ways you can fight the spread of respiratory diseases this year:

  • Try to avoid close contact with sick people – another great excuse to stay in with a good board game or movie on a brisk, 20-degree evening.
  • If you suspect you have the flu, do your officemates a favor and stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone except to see your doctor or run out to the pharmacy. Your fever should have resolved naturally before you return to work – it doesn’t count if you’ve been pounding the Ibuprofen.
  • If you suspect you have COVID-19, be sure to follow the latest guidance on isolating yourself and testing. Before you get hit with illness, be sure to pick up some free testing kits in the SJBPH lobby (in both locations).
  • Be polite – cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. And we’re all about Reduce Reuse Recycle, but tissues have one life. Use it, toss it, wash your hands.
  • Stock up on soap and make hand-washing your new best friend. Keep an alcohol-based hand sanitizer nearby for moments when soap and water are hard to find.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Not only will you be stopping germs at the door, but you’ll be practicing great skin-care.
  • Instead of spring cleaning, do some winter cleaning and clean and disinfect high-traffic surfaces and objects.

This winter, share happy memories – not communicable disease – with family and friends.

Rosalind Penney is director of infectious disease and clinical care at San Juan Basin Public Health. Reach her at rpenny@sjbpublichealth.org.