With flu season just around the corner, the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center blog offers some important tips and advice to help families stay healthy during the long winter months. Here are some of the most important things you need to know:
Understanding the flu.
Influenza, commonly known as “the flu,” is a viral infection that affects the nose, throat, and lungs. Similar to the common cold, but considerably more serious, the flu results in more than 700,000 hospitalizations every year (according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). The virus is airborne, meaning that it spreads when people who are infected cough, sneeze, or speak. The flu is closely associated with the colder months of the year: the largest number of flu cases occurs between November and March, although the season can begin as early as September and end as late as May.
How you can reduce your risk of getting the flu.
According to health experts, the most important thing you can do to reduce your risk of catching the flu is to get the annual flu vaccine. The flu vaccine is safe and well-studied, and it has been shown to be 60% effective at preventing people from getting the flu. In addition, it helps to reduce your symptoms if you do become infected. There are usually several different types of injectable vaccines available, and an annual vaccination is recommended by the CDC for anyone over the age of 6 months. High-risk groups who are particularly encouraged to receive the vaccine include infants and children with ongoing or chronic health problems, women who are pregnant, people who live with or care for infants under 6 months old, health care workers, seniors, and people with medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes, and heart disease.
In addition to the flu vaccine, there are many small but important steps you and others can take to help prevent the flu from spreading. Wash your hands frequently with plenty of soap, and avoid touching your nose, eyes, and mouth (these areas are the most common points of entry for the flu virus). When sneezing or coughing, cover your mouth with your elbow rather than your hands. If possible, follow the “6-foot rule.” That is, maintain a distance of 6 feet from anyone who appears to be sick. Finally, if you do become sick, stay home so that your risk of spreading the virus to others is minimized.
How to relieve flu symptoms.
Despite your best efforts, you may come down with the flu at some point during the season. Symptoms will typically begin within one to four days after you are exposed to the virus, and they may include fever, headache, extreme fatigue, body aches, sore throat, and nasal congestion.
An antiviral medication such as Tamiflu can be used to treat flu symptoms and shorten the duration of the infection. These medications are most effective if they are administered within one to two days of the appearance of symptoms. If you’re interested in this treatment, you should be sure to talk to your physician as soon as possible. Home remedies that you can use to help relieve your flu symptoms can include taking acetaminophen or ibuprofen to alleviate your fever or discomfort, elevating your head during sleep, using a cool mist humidifier or sitting in a steamy bathroom, drinking plenty of fluids, and getting plenty of rest. Remember that the flu is a virus, so antibiotics will not help treat the infection or reduce your symptoms.
Flu myths and misconceptions.
Despite the fact that the flu is very common, there are still many myths and misconceptions that surround both the virus and the vaccine. Read on to learn about some of them.
Getting the flu isn’t a big deal—For an otherwise healthy adult, the flu may not seem like much more than an uncomfortable inconvenience. However, it’s important to remember that the flu can be a serious disease for some people (like young children, older adults, and people with particular health conditions). According to CDC estimates, 56,000 people annually die as a result of the flu and related complications. Therefore, getting vaccinated and taking other steps to prevent the flu is as much about protecting other, more vulnerable people as it is about protecting yourself.
I got the flu vaccine last year, so I don’t need one this year—The flu vaccine is an annual vaccine, meaning that you need to get an injection every year in order to ensure optimal protection. The reason for this is that your level of immune protection from the flu vaccination declines over time. In addition, the vaccine will sometimes be adapted from one year to the next in order to better respond to different developing strains of the virus.
The flu vaccine will give me the flu—The flu vaccine cannot cause you to develop the flu. Vaccines are made with either “inactivated” (dead) viruses that are not infectious or with just a single flu virus gene that can produce an immune response without causing a flu infection. While some people could potentially experience side effects such as a cough or headache, the vaccine itself does not and cannot give you the flu.