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Virus season is upon us. Here’s what you can do to stay healthy during holiday gatherings

The holidays are here, and they’ve brought an unwelcome guest: respiratory viruses.
COVID-19 and flu cases are on the rise in North Texas and beyond, a trajectory that’s unlikely to change as families travel and gather to celebrate. A new COVID-19 subvariant, JN.1, is gaining speed at such a rate that the World Health Organization named the strain a “variant of interest.”
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Cold and flu season is an unavoidable and annoying fact of life for most, but for some groups, especially infants and the elderly, it can prove deadly. COVID also made the season more unpredictable, although trends are falling more in line with pre-pandemic norms.
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“We’re starting to see more historical patterns here,” said Dr. Jeffrey Kahn, chief of infectious diseases at Children’s Health. “For the kids who have underlying medical problems, any of these viruses can land them into the hospital.”
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Luckily, there are ways to prevent the spread of viruses like COVID, the flu and RSV. Here’s what you and your family can do to stay healthy in the new year.
The role of the immune system
Anyone can catch a respiratory virus, but you’re more likely to get sick if your immune system is weakened by things like stress or lack of sleep, said Dr. Victor Peña-Araujo, medical director at the Department of Personalized Health & Well-being at the University of North Texas Health Science Center.
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“If you’ve had a really rough week or month of work and very poor sleep, that’s usually when it hits you, that’s when you catch something, and it just makes things so much worse,” said Peña-Araujo. “That’s no coincidence.”
In addition to getting enough good-quality sleep, hydration can also improve the body’s ability to fight off infection. Your nose and throat, where viruses enter, is lined with a mucous membrane that lubricates and protects your organs from particles and diseases. If you’re dehydrated, your mucous membranes dry out, too, making you more susceptible to viruses.
“This is why the dry air of the winter makes us more prone to catching respiratory infections,” Peña-Araujo said. “You can catch a cold in the middle of the summer, but it’s just more likely in the winter.”
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COVID-era protections
Flu cases dropped significantly during the COVID pandemic, largely because of public health measures in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Those measures — social distancing, masking and isolating if you’re sick — can still come in handy when avoiding seasonal viruses like RSV and the flu. Wearing a mask in crowded areas, like planes and buses, might make sense if you’re going to visit friends and family.
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“I think it’s reasonable. I’ve certainly done that, and I expect my loved ones who come to us to do that on the way here,” Peña-Araujo said. “There’s such a mixture of people from different locations using mass transportation. You’re sitting together for a long time and coming from different places, so it’s a trifecta of spreading disease.”
Low- and high-tech virus-fighting tools
Kahn separates virus protection into two approaches: Low- and high-tech.
The low-tech method includes practicing good health hygiene and staying as clean as possible by regularly washing your hands and coughing into your elbow. If you have children, it can include checking with their preschool or day care to see how often they’re sanitizing toys, tables and doorknobs. After school, you may want to change their clothes and wipe down their belongings.
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Alcohol-based hand sanitizer is also effective at neutralizing respiratory viruses, Kahn said.
“The high-tech stuff, of course, is vaccines,” Kahn said.
Adults over 60 and pregnant women can now get vaccinated against RSV, while infants can get monoclonal antibody shots to fight the virus. Anyone 6 months or older is eligible for the flu vaccine, and anyone 6 months or older who hasn’t received a COVID shot in the last two months can get an updated Pfizer or Moderna booster.
It’s not too late into the cold and flu season to get vaccinated, as the flu, COVID and RSV can continue to spread well into the new year.

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