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Advice for cold, flu and COVID-19: Wear a mask and wash your hands

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Cold and flu season is coming up, on top of the still ongoing COVID pandemic. The number of cases of flu in the U.S. last year was low because people were still at home and masking up. But this year, cases could go up. And many are asking, how do they avoid getting sick?

Here to help us answer that question is NPR's Marc Silver, who edits the weekly coronavirus FAQ column for the Goats And Soda blog. Marc, thanks for being with us.

MARC SILVER, BYLINE: My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: How are you feeling?

SILVER: I'm feeling OK. I got my flu shot, so I'm not too worried. But I know I lot of...

SIMON: I got mine too, with my COVID booster.

SILVER: Yeah.

SIMON: But are we hearing that a lot of people are reluctant to get their flu shots?

SILVER: I think it's more people are just worried because they didn't get the flu or cold last year. The numbers were so low that there's really no historic precedent to look back at to see what happens when case numbers drop as low as they did last winter. So some people are worried; does it mean my immune system is weaker than it would have been if I had been exposed last year? And what does that mean for this year's flu and colds as well?

SIMON: What does that mean for this year's cold and flu season?

SILVER: (Laughter) That's the question - a very good question. We talked to some public health experts for this week's column. And I think we're OK. Even if you haven't had the flu in a year or two, your body still has some antibodies left over from the last time you had a flu or the colds. And if you've got the flu vaccine, that gives you even more antibodies.

SIMON: Marc, I have to ask you because I gather this thinking is going around, is it possible that after a year of very little flu, our immune systems don't have enough antibodies?

SILVER: You know, they probably do because the antibodies don't just vanish after a year or so. We probably have some left over. And we all breathe in pathogens all the time. And your body can fight them off and develop antibodies, even if you don't get sick. So it's likely that you probably have had some levels of exposure, even if you didn't get the flu last year.

SIMON: And then, of course, there's the flu vaccine, which has made such a contribution to American life.

SILVER: That's true. And I think this year it's really important to get it. People don't want to run risk of developing flu symptoms that they might mistake for COVID symptoms. The flu vaccine this year has three strains in it, which is a good number of strains. And it should keep you from catching the flu.

SIMON: Any other steps people can take?

SILVER: Yeah. I mean, some of the things that we've all gotten used to and maybe gotten a little tired of because of COVID are very helpful when it comes to cold and flu - for example, masks. I mean, I've got, oh, I don't know, several hundred masks, I think, sitting in my hallway.

SIMON: Yeah.

SILVER: And they protect you from breathing in airborne pathogens. That's how COVID-19 spreads. That's how the flu spreads. They do a good job protecting you when you go out. And they protect others in case you're infectious and don't know it.

SIMON: And any other anti-COVID precautions that we've become very used to doing that might help us in other ways this winter?

SILVER: Yeah. Remember, early in the pandemic, people put a lot of emphasis on washing your hands.

SIMON: Yes.

SILVER: And it turns out that COVID itself isn't spread that much by contact with infected objects. But it is a very, very common way of catching a cold. Colds are often spread if somebody sneezes or spreads germs on an object, you touch it with your hands and then, as we all do more times than we even think, touch your face. And that's how you get infected. I talked to a wonderful professor of epidemiology, Charlotte Baker, at Virginia Tech. And here's her words of wisdom - there's not really such a thing as being too clean.

SIMON: And if you get sick, what do you do?

SILVER: We've all done the wrong thing, which is you go out anyway and soldier through and expose everybody to your germs.

SIMON: Yeah.

SILVER: So the best advice here is stay home. And that's something we've all had a lot of practice with during the pandemic.

SIMON: NPR's Marc Silver, speaking from home, I happen to know - thanks for being with us.

SILVER: You're very welcome. Stay healthy, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOMMY GUERRERO'S "THANK YOU MK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.