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The flu strikes millions each season, but you can prevent it with some common-sense steps

David Buice | November 19, 2019

Flu season is officially in full swing, which means that millions of Americans are or will soon be experiencing unpleasant symptoms such as achiness, coughing, sneezing, fever and chills.

Influenza (commonly known as the flu) is not a disease to be taken lightly, however. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 9.3 million to 49 million Americans contract the disease each flu season, and that as many as 80,000 flu-related deaths occurred during the 2017-2018 season.

To help reduce your chances of becoming infected during the 2019-2020 season, read on to get answers to some frequently asked questions about the flu and how you can protect yourself and your family.

When is flu season?

Influenza viruses are always circulating, and the exact timing and duration of flu season can vary. However, influenza activity often begins ramping up in October and peaks between December and February, though activity can last as late as May.

How does the flu spread?

The flu is contagious, meaning it can spread from person to person, often through the air. You can pass on the disease even before you feel sick, and you’re contagious for several days after you get sick. You can catch the flu when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

The flu virus can also live for several hours on objects like books, phones and doorknobs. If you touch something the virus is living on and then touch your nose, mouth or eyes, you may become infected. Remember to wash your hands frequently before eating or touching your nose or mouth, especially if you’re around someone who’s sick.

How can you tell the difference between the flu and a cold?

It’s easy to confuse a common cold with the flu, but those suffering from influenza can have fever, chills, a dry cough, general aches and pains, and a headache, and they often feel very tired. Sore throat, sneezing, stuffy nose or stomach problems are less common. What is often called “stomach flu” (marked by stomach cramps, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting) is not actually influenza, but gastroenteritis.

If you’re in doubt, it’s always best to consult your healthcare provider.

What is the best form of flu prevention?

Getting an annual flu vaccine is the best way to protect yourself against the flu. With rare exceptions, the CDC recommends an annual flu shot for all persons age 6 months or older by the end of October each year. Vaccination is especially recommended for persons 65 or older, people of any age suffering from a chronic health condition (such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease), pregnant women and children under 5 years, especially those younger than 2 years old.

Is there anyone who should not get a flu shot?

Children under six months should not receive the flu vaccine, and some people with a history of Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS), a severe paralyzing illness, should not be vaccinated. If you’ve had GBS, talk to your doctor before getting the flu vaccine.

Do you need a flu shot every year?

Yes, for two reasons. Flu viruses mutate, and if a virus changes, the shot used to combat flu must also be changed. Additionally, the protection that a flu shot provides fades over time, especially in older people.

How do flu vaccines work?

Flu vaccines cause flu-protective antibodies to develop in the body about two weeks after vaccination. These antibodies provide protection against the viruses that research indicates will be the most common during the upcoming flu season.

How effective is the flu vaccine?

Protection provided by the flu vaccine varies from 30 to 60 percent, depending on the match between the vaccine and the major circulating flu strains.

Because of the lag time of several months in the manufacturing of the vaccine, there’s always the chance the virus-vaccine match may be somewhat off by the time flu season arrives. But even when the match isn’t perfect, getting a flu shot still reduces the risk of illness and death.

Can a flu vaccine give you the flu?

Contrary to common belief, the flu shot cannot give you the flu. Flu vaccines given with a shot are currently made in two ways. The vaccine can be produced either with flu viruses that have been inactivated (killed) or by using only a single gene from a flu virus (as opposed to the full virus) to produce an immune response without causing an infection.

You can, however, have side effects such as a sore or swollen arm or possibly a headache or low-grade fever for a day or so after getting your shot.

Other than the flu vaccine, what else can you do to avoid catching or spreading the flu?

The best preventive steps to take include the following:

  • Avoid close contact with those who are sick, if possible, and when you’re sick, keep your distance to avoid infecting others.
  • Stay home from work or school when you’re sick to avoid spreading the flu to others.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing to avoid spreading the virus.
  • Scour often-touched surfaces (such as doorknobs, countertops, tabletops and toys) regularly with anti-bacterial cleaners.
  • Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly, and if soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Make sure you’re keeping your immune system running smoothly with proper nutrition and sleep.
  • If you’re over 65 or have an underlying medical condition, get both types of pneumonia vaccine, as bacterial pneumonia is very common after influenza infection.

What should you do if you contract the flu?

If you contract the flu, the bad news is that it’s a virus, which means that antibiotics are not effective at treating it and can actually leave you feeling sicker. The good news is that the vast majority of people can fight off the flu with rest, isolation (since you’re contagious), fluids, nutritious food, symptomatic treatment and time. Find out what to do (and not to do) when you have the flu.  

For additional information on this topic and other important wellness tips, visit Scrubbing In, the Baylor Scott & White Health blog.

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