The days are getting shorter, the temperatures a little chillier, and pumpkin spice lattes are everywhere. You know what that means: We’re heading full steam ahead into cold and flu season.

That thought may feel a little underwhelming after nearly 2 years of worrying about the coronavirus. Still, colds and especially the flu are real threats. Just as we’ve seen with the rise of COVID-19 virus variants, the flu changes each year, too.

During the 2019-20 season, the flu was associated with 38 million illnesses in America, estimates the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC also estimates that it caused about 400,000 hospitalizations and 22,000 deaths. And yes, that was on top of the burden of the coronavirus.

That’s why it’s worth making sure your medicine cabinet and pantry are stocked with remedies before you break out into a sweat or start to shiver. Plus: Cold and flu cases could pick up now that there are fewer COVID-19 restrictions and more kids are back at school in person.

“Kids are a main source for spreading common colds and flu,” says Krupaben C. Patel, MD. She’s a family medicine physician at Austin Regional Clinic: ARC Liberty Hill in Central Texas.

So let’s gear up. Print out a free Optum Perks discount card to carry with you any time you go to the pharmacy. And then use these strategies to keep yourself from getting sick — and bounce back fast in the event that you do.

Roll up your sleeve

It’s more important than ever to get the flu shot. That’s because getting the flu “will decrease your immunity and could put you at higher risk for COVID-19 infection,” Dr. Patel says. The best time to get a flu shot is, well, now. Flu season begins in October and November.

Getting your shot now will ensure you’re protected before the peak flu months of December, January and February. Keep in mind: It takes about 2 weeks for your body to make antibodies after the shot, says the CDC.

As mentioned earlier, the flu changes every year. Experts create a new flu vaccine each season that is specific to the strains they think will make the most people sick. That’s why it’s important to get the flu shot annually.

The biggest benefit? It reduces your risk of serious illness. In fact, it lowers your chances of having to go to the doctor due to the flu by 40% to 60%, says the CDC. And it reduces your risk of needing to be admitted to the ICU by 82%.

Have a sick-day plan

If you’re living with a chronic condition or taking daily medication, it’s important to plan ahead. For example, the stress of being ill can raise the blood sugar of people with diabetes.

(Living with diabetes? Here are 4 techy ways to make managing your blood sugar easier.)

Be sure to talk with your doctor — before you get sick — about what your sick-day plan should be. Questions to ask your health care team could include:

  • What medications or supplies should I have on hand?
  • What should I do if I’m unable to stomach my medication?
  • When will I know to call you? What signs or symptoms should I be on the lookout for?

Help your immune system function at its best

Unfortunately, a glass of OJ a day or a vitamin C supplement probably won’t keep a cold away.

It’s true that your immune system needs enough nutrients to function. But there’s not a lot of evidence that specific foods or supplements offer special protection, says Harvard Health. Talk to your doctor to see if vitamins or mineral supplements would be right for you.

In general, experts recommend eating a balanced diet to make sure you’re giving your body what it needs to keep you healthy. That includes mostly the following:

  • Whole fruits and vegetables (apples, oranges, leafy greens)
  • Whole grains (whole-wheat products, brown rice, oats)
  • Lean proteins (fish, poultry, beans, nuts)
  • Healthy fats (olive oil, peanut butter)
  • Plenty of water

Other things that are important for immune health? Managing stress, getting enough sleep and aiming to be active every day.

Soap up throughout the day

This might seem like old news after months of social distancing and obsessive sanitizing. But washing your hands often throughout the day can limit your exposure to the flu virus. In fact, the flu virus has been shown to live for up to 2 days on surfaces, says the CDC.

Especially good times to wash your hands? After using the bathroom, upon entering the house, during food prep and before eating. And, of course, after coughing or blowing your nose.

Stock up on pain and fever medication

Colds and flus can bring on a whole host of symptoms: sinus pain, headaches, body aches and, in the case of the flu, a fever.

If you’re dealing with a bad cold or the flu, you’ll want to be well stocked with over-the-counter (OTC) medications for pain and fever relief. Find the best deals on essentials such as acetaminophen (Tylenol®) and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Advil®, Motrin®) at the Optum Store.

Just make sure you follow the dosage instructions closely. Many cold and flu medications contain acetaminophen. So, for example, you don’t want to take a cold medication such as NyQuil® and a Tylenol pill at the same time.

Invest in a humidifier

Humidifiers add moisture to the air. This water vapor can be very helpful in easing sore throats and opening up your sinuses when you’re feeling stuffy, says Dr. Patel.

Dr. Patel recommends using cool humidifiers if you have kids. These don’t heat up the water, so they’re safer to have around.

No humidifier? No problem. You can also make your own steam. “A steamy shower helps with congestion, sinus pressure and body aches for a short period of time,” Dr. Patel says. She recommends shutting the bathroom door, running a hot shower and staying in the bathroom (but not in the shower itself) for a while.

Check the expiration dates on your nasal decongestants and antihistamines

When you’re feeling stuffed up, a nasal decongestant spray or pill might become your new BFF. It can help break up the gunk and flush out your sinuses, relieving congestion, says the American Academy of Family Physicians. But if you find yourself using a nasal spray for more than 3 days in a row, call your doctor. It can make you more stuffed up in the long run.

If you have the opposite problem, you’ll likely want a different solution. For runny noses, Dr. Patel generally suggests an antihistamine such as Benadryl® to her patients. You might think of these OTC medications as being just for allergies. But their sneeze-blocking and symptom-relieving power can be helpful for colds, too.

Curl up with some tea

If you’re not a tea person, you might want to become one during cold and flu season.

First off, many find drinking a nice warm cup of tea soothing when they’re sick. But studies back up some of the health benefits of certain teas and their common companions, such as lemon and honey. For example, honey can be useful as a cough suppressant, says the Mayo Clinic.

Regardless of why you’re sick, Dr. Patel says to get immediate help for a high fever that lasts more than 4 or 5 days and includes:

  • Being dehydrated
  • Chest pain or shortness of breath
  • Worsening symptoms

One of the best things about the Optum Perks app? You can save and share prescription coupons with loved ones — near and far.

Additional sources
2019-20 flu season stats:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Who should get the flu shot: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Nutrition and immunity: Harvard Health
An overview of decongestants: American Academy of Family Physicians
Honey for coughs: Mayo Clinic