How to stay healthy at work this winter, according to an expert from the elite team that creates flu vaccines

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  • It’s incredibly difficult to avoid catching the flu.
  • Experts say the best thing to do is get a flu shot.
  • It’s also smart to stay home when you feel unwell to keep illnesses from spreading.

In the winter, when the temperature drops, the flu thrives.

As others around us get sick, the close quarters we share with our colleagues can begin to feel like the halls of an infirmary, instead of an office.

When co-workers begin hacking and sneezing, they spew virus-laden moisture droplets up into the air. Those particles will gladly travel up to six feet away to reach new hosts. Flu viruses can also linger on hard surfaces for as long as 24 hours, just waiting for their next victim.

Making matters worse, flu viruses spread more easily in the dry, cold air that circulates at this time of year.

Veteran flu expert Richard Webby, an infectious disease expert at St Jude Children’s Research Hospital who’s part of the elite World Health Organisation team that develops the annual flu vaccine, shared his best advice on how to keep the flu at arm’s length this year.

“So, that’s an easy one,” Webby told Business Insider. “The number one tip is the vaccine.”

[Read More: How to avoid the flu when your partner or roommate gets sick: 9 simple tips]

We have lots of hard evidence that vaccines are the best line of defence against the flu

While it may not be surprising that an infectious disease pro who helps decide what goes in the vaccine might think his creation is the best prevention strategy, hard evidence suggests he’s right.

Studies show that the flu vaccine reduces the risk of death from the flu by more than 50% for kids, and saves anywhere from 200 to nearly 10,000 lives every year, depending on how bad the flu season shakes out.

The vaccine is more effective some years than others. “We know the flu vaccine is not the best vaccine that we have,” Webby said.

Last year’s dose was a particularly poignant example of that: it was only about 25% effective against some of the worst strains of the flu, leading to the worst death toll the US has seen in over four decades.

“But it is effective,” Webby said, “and it still is the single most important thing that we can all do.”

The flu season this year isn’t expected to be as bad as last year’s, and the latest data from the Centres for Disease Control suggests circulating flu levels are very low, though it’s still too early in the season to say for sure that this will be a mild year. Vaccine experts also agree that the viruses in the air this year are probably better matched to the flu shots being given out. That’s another reason it’s likely that we won’t see a season as deadly as 2017-18, when 80,000 people died.

“We lost more children last year from flu deaths than any year before, since we started recording,” CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield recently told CBS News. “And a majority of those children were not vaccinated.”

Getting a flu shot can make you feel a little weird in the hours and days after you get pricked: common side effects include headache, fever, nausea, and achiness. But far from being a bad thing, those mild symptoms are a signal your body is likely developing immunity to new strains of the flu. Think of them as an immune system dress rehearsal for the real fight against the dangerous viruses you may come in contact with later in the season.

You can create a healthier workspace by staying home when you’re sick, and encouraging others to do the same

Aside from getting your flu vaccine, another important thing you can do to keep the population healthy this winter is stay home when you feel sick.

“If you can just reduce the number of infected people you can come into contact with during a flu season, you do clearly reduce your likelihood of getting infected,” Webby said.

Still, it is nearly impossible to avoid exposure to the flu entirely. Certain people can carry around flu germs while displaying no symptoms, and others have developed immunity to the flu bugs that circulate this year from their previous exposures. This means not every flu virus will get everyone sick, and not every case of the flu will be easy to spot.

While there’s no way to zero out your risk of getting sick, you can help keep yourself and others healthy by avoiding colleagues when you’re sick, telling them to stay home when they’re sick, and getting a shot or flu mist to avoid illness in the first place.

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