Visiting Family With a Chronic Illness During Cold & Flu Season

How to Avoid Making Friends & Relatives Sick

Family holiday gathering
Sofie Delauw

Cold and flu season comes around every year during the fall and winter months. Although the exact timing of flu season varies from year to year, it is generally fairly active between November and March in the Northern Hemisphere, but can extend even longer.

Due to numerous holidays occurring this time of year, people tend to travel a lot. No matter what your reason for traveling, if you are visiting friends or family with chronic health conditions during cold and flu season, there are a number of things you need to keep in mind.

You'll need to take precautions to keep yourself healthy and avoid spreading illness to your family members and friends. 

Consider Your Loved Ones' Health

If you are visiting a friend or family member with a chronic medical condition, make sure you discuss their risk factors and any symptoms you are experiencing before you go. There are many medical issues that put people at high risk for complications from the cold or flu. Some of the most common include:

  • Heart Disease
  • Diabetes
  • Asthma
  • Other chronic lung conditions (such as COPD, emphysema, or cystic fibrosis)
  • Neurological or neurodevelopmental conditions (seizure disorders, cerebral palsy, spinal cord injury, intellectual disabilities)
  • Suppressed immune system due to illness (such as HIV/AIDS) or medical treatment (such as chemotherapy)

People that have any of these conditions could be more susceptible to serious effects of an illness, such as the cold or flu, that would not be as worrisome for an otherwise healthy person.

What Can Happen

When someone with a chronic medical condition gets an illness like the common cold or flu, they tend to have more severe symptoms than others. The body of someone with a chronic medical condition is not in optimum condition to fight off the virus that is causing this new illness because of the constant fight to manage the chronic illness it deals with all the time.

Because of this, symptoms such as coughing, congestion, and fever can quickly lead to illnesses like bronchitis and pneumonia. For most people, a cold lasts for about a week, and the flu can last anywhere from two to seven days. A person with a weakened immune system may have symptoms that linger for much longer than the typical time period for one of these viruses. 

While an otherwise healthy person may still be able to function at a near-normal state, a person who gets sick with a cold or the flu on top of their chronic condition may not be able to leave home for several days or weeks. 

Hospitalization rates are also much higher among people with conditions such as asthma, COPD, and suppressed immune systems when they get respiratory illnesses like colds and the flu. Although a majority of people that die from the flu are older adults, many of them also have chronic medical conditions that may contribute to their deaths.

Many people don't realize how serious the flu can be—when combined with pneumonia (a common complication of the flu), it is one of the top 10 causes of death in the United States and the developed world. Getting a yearly flu vaccine could prevent a death or keep someone you know out of the hospital.

What You Can Do

You may struggle to know exactly how to handle a situation if you are planning to visit family or friends and suddenly find yourself sick. There are many steps you can take in advance so you'll be prepared if this does happen:

  1. Call before you travel—Talk to your family member about their health condition prior to making travel plans. Ask what symptoms cause them the most difficulty and if they seem to get sick more easily than other people. Ask them what they would like you to do if one of you is sick at the time you are planning to come. Be open and flexible. 
  2. Get your flu vaccine—If you are going to spend any time around someone that is at high risk for complications from the flu, make sure you get your flu vaccine. You will need to be vaccinated at least two weeks prior to traveling or spending time with your loved one. It takes two weeks for the flu vaccine to provide protection against the flu, so you need to plan ahead. 
  1. Stay home if you are sick—This is hard to do if you have spent money and are looking forward to the trip, but it is very important. Imagine how you would feel if your loved one ended up seriously ill after your visit due to germs that you brought with you. 
  2. Stay in a different location if you aren't sure—Sometimes it isn't clear cut whether or not your symptoms are severe enough to cancel your plans. If you have minor symptoms, talk to your friend or family member about how you are feeling and at least try to make plans to stay in a separate location, so you minimize the close contact. If you can stay in a hotel and take other basic precautions to prevent the spread of your germs, it may be OK to continue with your travel plans. 
  3. Wash your hands—This is the most basic and important step in preventing the spread of infections. It is important all the time but especially when you might spread germs to someone that is at high risk. Be sure you wash your hands before and after you prepare food, eat, use the bathroom, or touch your face. 
  4. Use hand sanitizer—If you don't have access to soap and water, be sure to carry hand sanitizer with you and use it frequently. Hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol will kill most germs on your hands as long as they are not visibly dirty. This is especially useful if you will be in tight quarters with multiple people, such as on an airplane.
  5. Cover your cough—If you have symptoms, such as cough and congestion, and decide to visit your family or friends anyway, take all of the precautions that you can to avoid spreading your germs to them. Covering your cough correctly is an often overlooked way to do this. If you cough into your hands, you immediately risk transferring those germs to anything you touch. Instead, cough into your elbow or a disposable tissue. This will block at least some of the droplets that contain the virus that is making you sick and decrease the likelihood that they will be spread to others around you. This is really the best thing to do no matter where you are. 
  6. Consider travel Insurance—If you are flying or spending a significant amount of money on your trip, consider purchasing travel insurance so you won't lose so much if you or the person you are visiting becomes ill and you have to change your plans. 

A Word From Verywell

Visiting family or friends during cold and flu season may present unique challenges if the person you are visiting has a chronic medical condition. It's important to think of their health and any symptoms you might be experiencing before you travel.

Getting a flu vaccine is especially important because the flu is actually contagious before you know you have it. You can spread the influenza virus to others up to 24 hours before you develop symptoms yourself. Other respiratory illnesses common during cold and flu season are contagious as long as you have symptoms or even a few days after your symptoms improve.

Take all of the precautions you can to protect yourself and those you will spend your time with during cold and flu season whether you are traveling across town, throughout the country, or around the world. If you are sick, don't risk the health—or the lives—of the people you care about. 

Sources: 

Get Vaccinated | Seasonal Influenza (Flu) | CDC. http://www.cdc.gov/flu/consumer/vaccinations.htm

Show Me the Science - How to Wash Your Hands | Handwashing | CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/show-me-the-science-handwashing.html

Show Me the Science - When & How to Use Hand Sanitizer | Handwashing | CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/show-me-the-science-hand-sanitizer.html. Published July 13, 2017. 

Take everyday precautions to protect others while sick. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/flu/consumer/treatment.htm. Published September 9, 2016. 

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