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Updated on Friday, October 4, 2019
Pumpkin spice lattes, cozy scarves and a long-awaited chance to dust off your favorite pair of boots. No doubt about it, there’s a whole lot to love about fall.
But it’s got its drawbacks, too. Specifically, fall heralds the start of flu season — a nebulous time of year which exact dates vary, but generally begins to pick up in October and its effects can last as late as May.
Although the word is still out on how bad this year’s bout of influenza will be, if recent history has anything to say, we could be in for it. The New York Times reported the 2017-2018 flu season was the worst in nearly a decade, killing almost 80,000 people and hospitalizing thousands more across all age groups.
Of course, even if the flu doesn’t kill you, it can definitely make you feel like crud — and even affect your earnings. You’ll likely miss at least a few days at work, and there’s no telling how your medical bills could pile up if you experience flu-related complications. Pneumonia, for example, cost patients over $400 on average for outpatient treatment per a 2018 study by BMC Health Services Research, and over $10,000 for those who required hospitalization.
When almost a third of American households have less than $1,000 in savings, those prices mean an avoidable illness could become a financial catastrophe.
Prevention, then, seems the best medicine. But how can you go about it as cheaply as possible?
Dirt-cheap ways to ward off illness
Unfortunately, once you have the flu, there’s not much you can do about it except wait. Although prescription antiviral drugs can help shorten your illness, they’re most helpful if you start taking them as soon as possible.
So instead, give yourself an ounce of prevention in the following affordable ways.
Get a flu shot.
It may seem like a pain to get a flu shot each and every year, but it’s one of the most effective ways to prevent illness, said Dr. Adrian Cotton, medical chief at Loma Linda University Health in California.
And even though the flu shot isn’t 100% effective, any efficacy is better than nothing.
“It’s worth doing,” Cotton said, especially since the risk factor is so close to zero.
And these days, the flu vaccine is pretty easy to access, so it’s hard to find an excuse. The vaccine is covered under most insurance plans, and many grocery stores and pharmacies offer them, sometimes even incentivizing the deal with in-store discounts.
Wash your hands — and everything else.
Flu is a communicable disease, which means it spreads from person to person. And while you sometimes can’t avoid exposure (if, for instance, your kids come home sick from school), you can go a long way toward limiting your chances by paying close attention to your hygiene.
Along with frequently washing your hands, be sure to avoid touching your face, Cotton advised, especially if you’ve interacted with sick individuals. And make it a point to clean frequently-touched surfaces in your household like doorknobs with a disinfectant solution, including bleach or peroxide.
Live a healthy lifestyle.
While there’s no particular combination of supplements that will make you invulnerable to the flu, maintaining general good health can go a long way in bulking up your immune system. Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is a good start, and superfoods don’t have to break the bank either.
How to ease symptoms if you’re already sick
Already sick? It’s tempting to run to the drug store and pick up every over-the-counter “cure” you can find.
But when it comes to easing your symptoms, it turns out the most affordable options are also the best ones.
Stay hydrated — and don’t worry, water’s fine.
Maintaining your fluid levels becomes critically important when you’re sick, and especially when you’re running a fever. But fortunately, you don’t need anything special to get the job done, Cotton said; water will keep you hydrated just fine.
The exception to the rule: if you’re feeling so unwell you don’t feel like eating or drinking, a product like Pedialyte or Gatorade could help you replace electrolytes. Otherwise, you’d be able to replenish them through your normal meals. (And hey, not all traditions are useless: classic chicken soup contains vitamin-packed veggies and protein, and that warm liquid will soothe a sore throat.)
Lying in bed costs absolutely nothing, and it’s an imperative step toward helping your body fight off the flu. And while a pain reliever like ibuprofen can help take the edge off your symptoms, sleep can also do wonders to help you get better more quickly.
Ditch the miracle cures … unless they work for you.
“There’s never been any trials that show that any over-the-counter, herbal remedy actually works for influenza,” said Cotton, though you can certainly find anecdotal evidence to the contrary.
Thus, shelling out for fancy supplements is probably a waste of money, unless you’re convinced we’re totally wrong in this regard.
That’s because the placebo effect could make you feel better even if there’s no physical, causal effect between the “cure” and your abated symptoms.
So if you’re absolutely certain you feel better when you take echinacea or soak in Epsom salts, go ahead, as long as they’re not dangerous or prohibitively expensive.
The bottom line
At the end of the day, flu season is a bit of a crapshoot. You can take as many precautions as you want, but sometimes, you just get unlucky.
If that reality makes you curmudgeonly, that might actually be a mark in your favor — because aside from the steps listed above, one of the best things you can do to avoid exposure is to stay away from people.
Hey, it could be worse; at least sitting at home and binging your favorite fall TV shows is pretty darn close to free.