01/20/2013 10:00 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Caring For A Flu Patient? How To Stay Healthy

General wisdom tells us to steer clear of the walking sick, especially given the severity of this year's flu season.

But when that sniffling, coughing person is someone you hold near and dear -- whether it's a friend, a spouse or a child -- there are some decisions to make. If you're spending time at home helping to take care of someone with the flu, how do you stay healthy yourself?

Experts are quick to recommend getting a flu shot, even if someone at home is already sick. While it's true that the vaccine takes a couple of weeks to kick in, flu season could continue on for several more. You won't get sick from the shot. Getting vaccinated when someone you're in close proximity to is already sick might not offer much protection, but at the very least it can serve as a reminder to get vaccinated, says Natasha Withers, D.O., of One Medical Group in New York City.

Vaccination aside, some general rules can help to avoid flu infection. Public health experts recommend staying about six feet away from someone with the flu. Any closer, and you're in prime range for inhaling the droplets that can make you sick as they expel into the air via coughs and sneezes. "Social distancing will help prevent infection," says Pritish Tosh, M.D., an infectious diseases physician at the Mayo Clinic, "[but] I'm never going to recommend that people don't spend time with their loved ones." That said, "avoiding unnecessary close contact with people who are clearly sneezing and coughing can help to prevent you from getting infected," he says.

The best way to limit contact with a family member or roommate might be to create what the CDC calls a "sick room," a separate room where the sick person should stay to help reduce the spread of germs. If your house has more than one bathroom, the CDC even recommends designating one for the sick person to use. As much as possible, caretakers should limit visits to the sick room, and keep a window cracked or a fan blowing to circulate fresh air into the room. For some, this might even mean sleeping apart from a spouse, or taking a little break from kissing until the sick party is symptom-free.

Of course, keeping a certain distance might not even be an option, especially if you're taking care of a young child. (The CDC recommends holding small children with their head on your shoulder, so their coughs are directed away from your face.) That's why certain preventive measures, like frequent hand washing, become even more important. "I will always encourage good hand hygiene for general prevention of infections," says Tosh. That means washing before eating, drinking or touching your face, especially after touching shared surfaces in your home. And don't cheat -- sing "Happy Birthday" in your head twice through while scrubbing.

It also can't hurt to keep disinfecting sprays or wipes on hand to clean those surfaces, says Tosh. "Influenza can survive on surfaces for several hours, potentially days," he says. Start with places like the bathroom faucet or the refrigerator door that get handled frequently by sick and healthy parties. Withers recommends cleaning the surfaces in the sick room and the designated bathroom daily. Wash any dishes and utensils the sick person has used sooner rather than later. Sheets and towels should be cleaned in hot water, and as you throw in the load, try not to "hug" those dirty linens close to the body, says Withers.

Other general immune-boosting practices are important to follow as well, like avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth, which are prime pathways for germs to enter the body.

Some caregivers might consider wearing a mask -- or asking the "patient" to, but there's actually little evidence to prove that doing so prevents spread of the flu. The CDC doesn't currently recommend wearing one outside of a healthcare setting, and doing so may only feed into the hysteria and panic that this year's flu outbreak seems to be spreading, Tosh says.

Not that the flu shouldn't be taken seriously. It's important to know when a loved one in your care requires greater medical attention, Tosh says. Children under two, adults older than 65, pregnant women and people with certain medical conditions are at significantly greater risk for complications from the flu, he says, and should be monitored closely for symptoms like dizziness, difficulty breathing, a worsening cough after it had seemed to improve earlier and a lingering fever, among others.

But it's also important to take care of yourself, he stresses. Ramp up your fluid intake, get plenty of rest, try to maintain a regular exercise routine and continue to eat a diet rich in a wide variety of vitamins and nutrients. Caretakers who themselves meet the criteria for being at higher risk of flu complications -- namely, they are over 65, have young children at home or have certain chronic medical conditions -- need to be extra cautious. In some cases, a prophylactic antiviral medication might be appropriate, says Withers. Talk to your doctor if you think you or your household might fall into this category.

And don't forget to offer the patient a few helpful tips. Encourage sick friends and family members to cough and sneeze into a disposable tissue whenever possible, or into their elbow instead of their hands when a tissue is out of reach, and to keep hand alcohol-based hand sanitizer nearby for those moments when they don't feel like washing up with soap.

Are you caring for anyone with the flu? What steps do you take to make sure you stay healthy?

For more on flu prevention, check out these natural immunity boosters:

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