How you can avoid catching the flu this season

Between now and the end of the year, getting a flu shot should be an item on your “to do” list. Yearly flu vaccinations can begin as early as late summer and usually continue throughout the influenza season, into December, January and beyond. “Flu season” most often peaks in February, but influenza viruses can start earlier and continue to cause illness into the spring. For people not able to get their influenza vaccine in the fall, vaccination in December, January and beyond is still beneficial.
Getting a flu shot now may help you ward off several miserable days in bed with a fever, cough, sore throat, headaches and body aches. In some cases, the flu can also cause digestive symptoms such as diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. And in the worst scenario, the flu can be deadly. In recent years, flu deaths have become more prevalent, especially among children, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems.
Is it a cold or the flu?
A cold and the flu are alike in many ways. But the flu can sometimes lead to more serious problems, such as pneumonia. A stuffy nose, sore throat, and sneezing are usually signs of a cold. Tiredness, fever, headache, and major aches and pains probably mean you have the flu. Coughing can be a sign of either a cold or the flu. But a bad cough usually points to the flu.
How the flu gets you
Influenza, commonly known as flu, is a contagious respiratory illness caused by a family of viruses. The virus travels through the air, so most people catch it by inhaling droplets when infected people around you cough or sneeze. But you also can become infected when you touch a remote control, telephone, doorknob or other object recently handled by a sick person and then touch your eyes, nose or mouth. These are easy avenues for the flu virus to enter your body.
And once the virus gets in, it makes itself right at home. Symptoms often begin within a day or two after infection, and unlike a cold, they can come on very suddenly. The virus spreads quickly, too, since an infected individual is contagious usually about one day before symptoms start, to five days after the onset of symptoms. So you can therefore spread the virus before you even know you have it.
Because the flu is a viral infection, antibiotics won’t help. Antiviral medications may shorten the length of the illness if you take them within two days of becoming sick. In most cases, though, once you have the flu it just has to run its course. Time, rest and plenty of fluids are the best treatments; over-the-counter medications can help relieve cough, muscle aches, fever and other symptoms. Choose medications designed to treat only the symptoms you have to avoid over-medicating yourself. Follow the directions carefully and be especially aware of side effects such as dizziness and drowsiness. Most flu symptoms should run their course within a week or so. However, even after the worst of the illness has passed, it can take a month or more to get your energy back and feel like your usual self again. Give your body time to get back up to speed.
Defend yourself
The flu shot can be one of your best defenses against illness. The specific strains used in the shot changes from year to year depending on which are expected to be most prevalent. No shot will protect against every flu bug, but it can increase your odds of escaping the most popular ones. Flu shots are very safe, and since the virus is dead, it can’t infect you with the flu.
Who should get a flu shot? The American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends annual influenza immunization for all children, both healthy and with high-risk conditions, ages 6 months through 18 years. And according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, almost all people who want to lower their chance of coming down with the flu can and should get a flu shot. The vaccine is also recommended for the elderly, people with weakened immune systems, and anyone likely to be exposed to the virus, such as teachers or health care workers. Pregnant women should consult their obstetrician. Ask your doctor whether the flu shot is a good idea for you and your family.
Whether you get a flu shot or not, practice prevention; wash your hands frequently, keep them away from your eyes, nose and mouth, and try to stay away from sick people. If you’re the one who is sick, cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze and try to avoid touching other people or shared objects. If you can, stay home from work or school until you are better.
(For general information on the timing of flu seasons in the United States, visit http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/season/flu-season.htm.)

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