How to safely celebrate holidays and avoid respiratory viruses

Winter is time for many fun holiday traditions. It is also the season for respiratory viruses, including influenza, RSV and COVID. This year, we have already seen a major (and earlier than expected) spike in RSV cases resulting in many excess hospitalizations in kids — and an earlier than expected rise in influenza. Severe COVID-19 cases are creeping up as well.

The amount of respiratory illnesses out there can be overwhelming and it may seem impossible to keep track. It is natural to wonder: how can I keep myself and loved ones safe from viruses this holiday season?

As an infectious diseases physician at the University of Chicago Medicine, I can tell you that there are no easy answers or clear-cut decisions. Still, I can offer recommendations and considerations to ensure your holidays are as safe as possible.

How can I safely celebrate the holidays this year?
Be extra careful leading up to the holidays.

Before a big group event where you will be around vulnerable individuals, it is smart to limit your risk of catching something in the days leading up to the event. For example, if you are planning a holiday gathering with an elderly or immunocompromised family member, wear a mask at your work holiday gathering the week before. If you can’t take measures to limit your own exposures before visiting with vulnerable people, wear a mask around them and increase ventilation by opening windows and using a filter like a diy Corsi-Rosenthal box.

Get your recommended vaccinations.

There are no vaccines available for many respiratory viral infections, such as RSV. But you can help protect yourself from flu and COVID. New vaccines are available this season that are tailored to the current variants. These vaccines won’t provide complete protection from catching flu or COVID but they will go a long way toward making you less sick if you do. Both vaccines are proven to reduce the risk of hospitalization and decrease the length of illness, getting you back to work and play faster. If you haven’t gotten both an updated flu vaccine and a COVID-19 vaccine this fall, you can get them for free at a local pharmacy or doctor’s office. Also, check online for vaccine events in your area. Hurry — flu and COVID are rising earlier than expected.

Stay home if you have any symptoms of a respiratory illness.

It may seem like “just a cold” or “just allergies,” but it is important to play it safe if you’re feeling under the weather. What is a minor nuisance to you could put someone else on life support. Don’t risk it.

If you can get tested at the doctor’s office or a nearby testing facility, that’s great. If not, you can do a COVID test at home. However, you should follow the directions carefully and repeat the test a couple of days later if it is negative. The COVID rapid antigen tests done at home can have a false negative result in the first couple of days of symptoms so if you are just starting to feel sick and your home COVID test is negative, you should still stay home and avoid contact with people who might be high-risk. Currently, we don’t have at home tests for flu or RSV.