While just about anyone is susceptible to cold and flu viruses, cancer patients and caregivers can be especially vulnerable. Cancer patients have an increased risk of contracting viruses because their immune system is already overtaxed due to their treatment regimen, and caregivers are often more susceptible because they may be overstressed physically and mentally from their increased level of responsibility.
But while nothing is 100% effective against the two main types of influenza virus and more than 200 cold bugs out there, some tactics can be effective in protecting yourself.
Get the flu vaccine
Cancer and cancer treatment can weaken the immune system making a person more susceptible to the flu. For that reason, you should talk to your doctor about the flu vaccine, making him/her aware of any reactions to eggs and any other allergies you have. Try to receive the injection as soon as it is available because it will take at least two weeks for your body to start protecting you from the flu virus. People with cancer should get the flu shot and NOT the nasal spray. It is also recommended that those caring for cancer patients receive the flu shot.
Wash your hands
One of the most common ways people catch colds and the flu is by rubbing their noses or eyes after their hands have been contaminated with the cold or flu virus. A quick rinse won't suffice, make sure you wash 15 to 20 seconds with soap and water. Hum the “Happy Birthday” song twice to make sure you wash long enough. No soap around? Rubbing alcohol-based cleaners can work in a pinch.
Ask your doctor about taking an antiviral medication
While they are not a substitute for being vaccinated, antivirals can help prevent the flu or, if you get it, reduce your symptoms and lower your risk of flu-related complications. If you are hospitalized due to the flu, antivirals may be able to shorten your hospital stay.
Try natural remedies
Certain remedies such as Andrographis (sometimes called “Indian Echinacea”), Echinacea and garlic (just to name three) have shown some cold and flu fighting properties. But since even natural and herbal products can have an undesired effect when taken in conjunction with other medications, you must discuss their use with your physician prior to taking any natural and/or herbal remedies.
Take care of yourself
Give your immune system all the help it can get by getting enough sleep, eating nutritious meals, drinking plenty of water, engaging in regular exercise and finding ways to manage stress in your life.
Know the difference between “just a cold” and “it’s the flu”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a handy chart that spells out the differences between the common cold and the flu. Knowing the difference can let you know if you should wait it out or call the doctor. A flu can lead to complications such as bronchitis or pneumonia, can worsen chronic conditions or can be life threatening, especially in the elderly, those with chronic conditions, young children and pregnant women. But even a cold can lead to complications such as a sinus infection, a middle ear infection or asthma. When it doubt, always check with your doctor.