With flu season right around the corner, it's crucial to take early action and be armed with information and preventative measures to protect yourself and those around you.
Possibly the three worst things about winter are holiday traffic, ice storms and the flu. The flu is something most people will do just about anything to avoid getting. What exactly is the flu, how can you avoid getting it, and if you do get it, how can you treat it?
The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by viruses that infect the nose, throat, and sometimes the lungs. It can cause mild to severe illness, and at times, it can lead to death. There are three types of influenza or flu. Type A virus is continually changing and is mainly responsible for the vast number of illnesses.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that influenza results in between 9.3-49 million illnesses, between 140,000-960,000 hospitalizations, and between 12,000-79,000 deaths annually in the United States.
The flu is different from a cold. The flu usually comes on suddenly and includes some or all of these symptoms, according to CDC.gov: fever or feeling fever and chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, and fatigue. Some people may also experience vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults.
While colds and flu can in many cases look a lot alike, there are some predictable differences. For one thing, colds usually take a few days to build up, while the flu comes on more abruptly. Sometimes a flu patient goes from well to very sick in a few minutes. A cold typically lasts about three to five days, while the flu tends to linger about twice that long. Also, a fever is much more common among flu patients, and the same is true of headaches, body aches, and a dry cough.
The primary infection season for the flu is from the first of November to the beginning of April, says Dr. Terence Carey, with the flu typically peaking in January or February. Carey, the owner of Carey Clinic and a physician board-certified in allergy, asthma, and immunology, has seen more than a few cases of the flu during his medical career.
If you haven’t had your flu shot yet, you should. Typically, the best time to get the flu shot is late September or early October. People should usually wait until that time of year because “the antibody levels and immunological protective mechanism start to wane after about six months,” Carey says. “If you get the shot too early, then when you hit peak season, the protections may start to wane.”
Everyone older than 6 months should get the flu shot, with just a few exceptions. The flu shot is not recommended for people with severe, life-threatening allergies to the flu vaccine or any ingredient in the vaccine — which might include gelatin or antibiotics. The vaccine is also not recommended for anyone with an egg allergy. It is also not recommended that anyone with Guillain-Barré Syndrome — a severe, paralyzing illness — receive the flu shot.
There are certain types of people who should not skip getting the flu shot, Carey says, such as the very young (but older than 6 months), the elderly, and people with chronic pulmonary diseases and chronic heart diseases. “The people at most risk for dying from the flu are the elderly,” he says.
Other people who should not compromise on getting a flu shot are people with rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, autoimmune diseases, chronic lung disease, asthma, COPD, cardiac disease, immuno-compromised people and people on chemotherapy.
You probably know someone who refuses to get the flu shot every year because maybe they experienced some sickness as a result of getting it once. Sometimes the flu shot will cause side effects like soreness, redness or swelling at the injection site, or a low-grade fever and aches. Only about 1-2% of people who get a flu shot will have fever as a side effect, according to livescience.com.
The flu shot isn’t perfect, of course. It won’t prevent everyone from getting the flu. “It’s at best 60-70% effective,” Carey says. “During the epidemic years, there are large numbers of deaths.”
However, even with the imperfect nature of the flu shot, the medical community still highly recommends it.
Other than the flu shot, you can attempt to avoid the flu by limiting your interaction with crowds and sick people and be sure to practice proper hand-washing.
What happens if you manage to contract the flu?
Your best bet is to visit a physician and get a prescription for Tamiflu as quickly as possible. Tamiflu is most effective within 24 hours of the symptoms.
“If you take it longer than 36 to 48 hours from the onset of symptoms, it won’t change the course of the illness at all,” Carey says.
Because of these risks, and because the symptoms of colds and flu can be hard to tell apart, people need to take steps to prevent the spread of these viruses. When you are sick with influenza or a cold, your mucus, saliva, and everything coming from your nose, mouth, and throat down to your lungs are teeming with millions of highly infectious virus particles. Sneezing, coughing, or any other activities that transfer your mucus to your environment could make other people sick.
If you’re feeling unwell, the best thing you can do is isolate yourself until your symptoms go away. If you go to work or the store, you are likely to spread the illness. If you have to leave the house, avoid touching your mouth or nose, wash your hands frequently, and try to cough or sneeze into the crook of your arm.
Lick Being Sick
Are you avoiding your co-worker with that hacking cough, cold, or flu in the cubicle next to you? Do you open every doorknob with your elbow? Although complete immunity can’t be guaranteed, we have put together some top tips that might protect you from getting sick this season.
- Get a flu shot
- Wash your hands a lot
- Keep your hands away from your face
- Clean high-touch areas daily
- Don’t throw other people’s tissues away
- Don’t kiss the infected
- Don’t bite your nails
- Keep the windows closed
- Avoid sharing food
- Eat fruits and vegetables
- Get plenty of rest
- Keep hand sanitizer on hand
- Go out in the sun
- Boost your immune system
- Quit smoking
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