Frugal Flu Fighting: Affordable Ways to Avoid Influenza

The flu isn’t just a cold. It’s a serious health issue that can be fatal, especially if a secondary infection like pneumonia sets in.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the number-one way to protect yourself is to get a flu shot. While not a 100% guarantee, it’s still your best line of defense. The immunization has about an 80% efficacy rate in people under age 60, and works about 50% of the time for those older than 65. Not foolproof – but better than nothing.

Note: Some people don’t trust the flu shot. However, this article will address other, non-vaccine-related options for avoiding this potentially serious disease.

What does the flu have to do with frugality? Lots. The medical costs alone – doctor’s appointments, medicine, hospitalization – cost consumers an estimated $4.6 billion per year, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

The disease results in more than 111 million work absences each year, NIOSH reports. Those who’ve used up their sick days (or never had any to begin with) due to a previous illness, chronic health problems, or just taking time off to care for a sick child simply won’t be paid if they don’t go to work. People who work part-time jobs with no sick days would also have to ask themselves, “How many no-salary days can my emergency fund cover?”

Or suppose your supervisor was already peeved because you’d used all five of your sick days. A case of the flu could keep you out for five more. Should layoffs become an issue, whom do you think the boss will choose: the person who calls in sick a lot or the person who never misses a day? (While some illnesses and conditions are protected under the Family and Medical Leave Act or the Americans With Disabilities Act, employers are often free to terminate an at-will worker if he or she is chronically absent.)

If you have a family, you might need to turn to takeout food if you’re too run down to cook. Even if you’re not the one who does most of the cooking, your spouse or partner might be too busy taking care of (and worrying about) you to keep things humming in the household.

About that family: How guilty would you feel if someone else gets sick because you didn’t make time to get the flu shot? Children – particularly those who are under six months of age – are in a high-risk group. If your baby is too young to be vaccinated, imagine the fear and anxiety of watching your infant be racked with fever, pain, and respiratory distress.

The flu feels horrible. A former co-worker pooh-poohed the risk as well as the severity of the disease — until he got it, that is. He ran a high fever and hurt all over, including the worst headache he’d ever had – one that he couldn’t get away from, no matter how many painkillers he took.

“I wasn’t afraid I would die,” he said. “I was afraid I wouldn’t die.”

You don’t want that. Nor do you want to infect anyone you love. Get the shot!

How to pay less for a flu shot
1. Got insurance? The Affordable Care Act made the vaccination free to anyone with insurance. If you’re on Medicare you can also get vaccinated at no charge.2. Do an online search for “free flu shot 2017.” County health departments, houses of worship, medical clinics, Women Infant Children nutrition program centers, and other locations near you might offer gratis vaccinations. Or call 2-1-1 and ask about free treatment in your area.

3. Look for a federally funded health center. Since care is provided on a sliding scale basis, you may pay little or nothing for the vaccination. Or visit the National Association of Free & Charitable Clinics home page.

4. The Vaccines for Children program provides free immunization to youths under the age of 19 if they’re un- or under-insured, eligible for Medicaid, or are American Indian or Alaska Native. While some doctors will charge to administer the shot, you cannot be turned away if you’re unable to pay that fee.

5. If you don’t have insurance and no free shots are available in your region, do a little price-matching. According to 20SomethingFinance, the best prices are likely at Costco and Sam’s Club. (You don’t need to be a member.)

Still not convinced? Try these tactics.

No flu shot for you, huh? The second-best defense is a good offense. There are plenty of free (or cheap) precautions you can take:

Wash. Your. Hands. You can’t know who opened the door or pushed the shopping cart just before you did. That person could have been as healthy as a horse or as sick as a dog. Someone in your workplace or even members of your own family might be incubating the flu; according to the CDC, you can be contagious before symptoms emerge.

Thus you should wash your hands regularly to increase your chances of staying healthy. Supermarkets have taken to putting antiseptic wipes next to the carts; use them, especially during flu season. Carry a small bottle of alcohol-based hand sanitizer with you in other situations.

Don’t touch your face. You probably have no idea how often you touch your eyes, mouth, or nose throughout the day – and all three places are a straight shot for the flu virus to enter your body. Become conscious of this habit, and work to change it.

Consider a face mask. Fun fact: Someone who is contagious with or has the flu can infect people up to six feet away. If you take public transit or work in a crowded environment and flu is reported in your area, you might want to wear a face mask. Some people would feel silly doing this. But maybe it’s better to be a little self-conscious than to be sick.

Clean up shared equipment. Advice from the CDC: “Frequently touched surfaces should be cleaned and disinfected at home, work and school.” Another former co-worker brought antiseptic wipes to clean the phone and keyboard he and other employees used by turns. He never seemed to get sick. Maybe he just had a strong constitution, or maybe it was his cleanliness that kept him healthy.

Get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation won’t do your immune system any favors. Social media and the shows in your DVR queue can wait.

Eat a nutritious diet. Among other things, focus on lean proteins, plenty of fruits and vegetables, and whole grains. While some people believe that certain foods will boost your immune system, American Dietetic Association spokeswoman Dr. Christine Gerbstadt says that excellent overall nutrition will enhance your body’s ability to fight off infection.

And if you do get the flu?

Here’s hoping you don’t. But if you develop flu-like symptoms, visit a doctor promptly. Antiviral medicines can reduce the severity of the disease, and they work best if administered within 48 hours of the first symptoms.

(Those symptoms, according to the CDC, are: fever, cough, sore throat, stuffy or runny nose, headache, fatigue, and muscle or body aches. Vomiting and diarrhea may sometimes be present, usually in children.)

After that, stay home. Knowingly exposing co-workers to this disease is just plain wrong. Besides, the more you rest and take care of yourself, the faster the flu will fly. Generally it takes about anywhere from five days to two weeks to get better. Until then, stay in bed or at least lie down on the couch.

Stay hydrated by drinking a lot of water, juice, and tea (but no alcohol). If you run a fever, a drink like Powerade or Gatorade can replenish electrolytes.

Acetaminophen, aka Tylenol, can help both with the fever and the wicked ache. The generic version works just as well and costs less. Cough medicine, antihistamines, and decongestants can reduce other discomforts; check the labels to make sure they don’t interact with any daily medicines you take.

It’s essential that you take only one medicine at a time that contains acetaminophen; too much can cause permanent liver damage. Many popular over-the-counter medications contain it. If the medicine you take for flu symptoms has acetaminophen, make sure your other meds don’t.

You can’t guarantee that you won’t catch the flu. You can take steps to avoid it. Take the illness seriously, lest it take you down.

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Veteran personal finance writer Donna Freedman is the author of “Your Playbook for Tough Times: Living Large on Small Change, for the Short Term or the Long Haul” and “Your Playbook for Tough Times, Vol. 2: Needs AND Wants Edition.”

Donna Freedman

Contributor for The Simple Dollar

Award-winning journalist and veteran personal finance writer Donna Freedman is the author of “Your Playbook for Tough Times: Living Large on Small Change, for the Short Term or the Long Haul” and “Your Playbook for Tough Times, Vol. 2: Needs AND Wants Edition.” A former full-time reporter for the Chicago Tribune and Anchorage Daily News and longtime columnist for MSN Money, Freedman has also written for Get Rich Slowly, Money Talks News, and other publications