Maybe the flu, with its fever, dry cough, sore throat, body aches and chills, won’t strike you this year. But why take the chance? The influenza virus — a contagious infection of the respiratory system — affects 10 to 20 percent of the population annually. Each year the flu is different, and more or less severe. Since 2010 in the U.S., deaths from the flu or its complications have ranged from 12,000 to 56,000. Fortunately, there are preventive steps you can take to avoid the flu.
1. Get a Flu Shot
The Centers for Disease Control recommends that everyone six months of age and older get a flu vaccine every season.
“Getting a flu shot will not only reduce your risk of coming down with the flu, but also of spreading it to others,” says Jessica Cassady, MD with TriHealth’s Queen City Physicians. “This is especially important if you are frequently around people at high risk for developing flu complications such as those below 5 or older than 65, pregnant women, people with weakened immune systems or those with chronic illness.”
Ideally, have your shot at the start of the season, which means in October or November. The vaccine is very safe, there are no serious side effects, and it’s typically covered by insurance.
Talk to your doctor before getting a flu shot if you have an allergy to eggs or any of the ingredients in the vaccine, a history of Guillain-Barré syndrome, or an acute illness or fever.
2. Avoid Germs
This might seem to be common sense, but it bears repeating: Try not to have close contact with anyone who’s infected. And if you’re sick yourself, stay home and get well. When someone who has the flu coughs or sneezes, the virus is expelled into the air and may be inhaled by others. That’s why health experts recommend sneezing or coughing into the crook of your arm. Other ways to protect against both spreading germs if you’re sick and catching germs if you’re not: Wash your hands frequently, and keep them away from your eyes, nose and mouth (touching these areas can spread the bacteria).
3. Keep Your Immune System Strong
Boost your immune system by staying on top of fundamental healthy habits. Get plenty of sleep and exercise, drink a lot of fluids, maintain a balanced diet and manage stress.
4. Consider a Medication
In most cases, flu can be treated with bed rest, plenty of fluids, and an over-the-counter pain reliever. But, your doctor may recommend an antiviral medication. When taken within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms, oseltamivir (trade name Tamiflu) and zanamivir (trade name Relenza) may shorten your illness by a day or more and help to prevent complications. But these medications may cause side effects such as skin rashes, vomiting, diarrhea and headache. In addition, heavy use of antivirals could cause strains of the influenza virus to build up a resistance, making the drugs ineffective down the line.
If you believe you’re getting the flu — especially if a fever has come on suddenly — see your doctor. He or she can do a nasal swab test in the office to determine promptly if you have the illness. Be sure to monitor the progress of your illness. If you start feeling worse instead of better as the days go by, consult your doctor to make sure you’re not developing a flu-related complication.