Preparing for Flu Season

[avatar user=”dponieman” size=”thumbnail” align=”left” link=””]by Diego Ponieman M.D., M.P.H.[/avatar]

As the weather cools down and autumn begins, it’s time to start thinking about flu season. In the United States, flu season typically peaks between December and February, though taking preventive measures during the preceding months can make a big difference in ensuring that you and your family stay flu-free.

Flu is an illness caused by viruses that infect the nose, throat, and sometimes lungs. It is contagious and can be spread through the air or by touch, which can make prevention challenging at schools and in the workplace. On average, five to 20 percent of the U.S. population gets the flu each year. Though most people who get sick with the flu do not end up needing medical care or prescription medication, groups such as children younger than five, adults older than 65, and people with weakened immune systems are at higher risk of developing flu complications that can be deadly.

The most important thing that you can do every year to ensure that you and your family members don’t contract the flu is to get vaccinated. The flu vaccine helps your body develop antibodies that can provide protection against the viruses that “research indicates will be most common during the upcoming season,” according to the CDC. Everyone age 6 months or older should get vaccinated every year, though there are some rare exceptions. Always speak with your doctor before making the decision not to vaccinate yourself or a family member.

In order to make sure the vaccine is most effective, you should get vaccinated in early fall before the end of October, as it takes about two weeks for antibodies to develop and provide protection against flu viruses. Though flu shots may vary in effectiveness year to year, it is still important to get vaccinated as it is the best way to protect against infection and keep those who are around you safe as well. Even if you do end up catching the flu, a previous vaccination can help reduce the length and severity of your illness.

Once you’re vaccinated, make sure that you are following healthy habits to limit the spread of germs in your home and workplace. Simple things like covering your mouth or nose when you cough or sneeze are vital in helping keep your spaces clean, along with washing your hands and surfaces regularly. You should also be careful about touching your eyes, nose, or mouth, particularly after you’ve touched something else or have been in close contact with another person. Doing so will ensure that you limit the spread of germs that could cause infection.

Finally, it’s important to recognize the signs and symptoms of flu so that you can limit contagion and stay safe. Flu symptoms vary from person to person but generally include fever, cough, sore throat, runny/stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, and fatigue. If you are experiencing such symptoms, it’s important that you take time to stay at home and rest. Going to work will put people around you at higher risk of infection.

If you’ve been experiencing some or all of these symptoms for over two weeks, you may be at risk of developing complications such as pneumonia, heart inflammation, and even organ failure. Please review the CDC emergency warning signs of flu and speak with a medical professional immediately if you or a family member is experiencing any more severe symptoms.