Flu season is here! And now is the time to take preventative steps to avoid getting or spreading the flu.

The flu is a common, highly contagious, serious — and potentially deadly — respiratory disease caused by influenza viruses. It attacks the respiratory system, causing a runny nose, cough and sore throat. But that’s only the beginning. It also wreaks havoc over the entire body — causing headaches, muscle or body aches, fever of 100 degrees or higher, chills, fatigue, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea (more common in children).

And, it doesn’t stop there. The flu virus can lead to a number of moderate to serious complications, particularly in children aged 6 months to 5 years, pregnant women (and their fetus), adults older than 65, people with weak immune systems and those with chronic health conditions (e.g., heart disease, lung disease, diabetes).

Complications include ear and sinus infections; bronchitis; pneumonia; dehydration; inflammation of the heart, muscle, and brain; multi-organ failure of the kidneys or respiratory system (that may require placement of a breathing tube and being hooked up to a breathing machine); and sepsis (the body’s life-threatening response to infection).

Anyone can be affected by the flu, and there are steps everyone can take to prevent it and protect against its spread.

Get a flu vaccine

The absolute best protection is getting immunized, which not only protects you but those around you. Many of the hospitalizations, complications and deaths from last season occurred in those not vaccinated. The CDC recommends everyone older than 6 months get the flu vaccine every year.

Those who are immunized and still catch the flu generally have a decreased risk of complications, hospitalizations and death. In other words, the flu shot blunts the impact and offers a vital level of protection.

Make sure to discuss options with your healthcare provider or pharmacist to determine which is best for you.

Now is the time

The best time to get your flu vaccination is as soon as it becomes available, which is now. It typically takes your body’s immune system up to two weeks to manufacture the antibodies that can attack the influenza virus, so it is important to get vaccinated now. Don’t delay!

I often hear people wrongly state, “I got sick from the flu shot.” No, you cannot get the flu from the vaccine, because it is formulated from an inactivated or dead virus — it’s impossible. When someone does get the flu shortly after, it is likely they were exposed to the virus before antibodies were formed. Or, the influenza strain that infected them was not one that the vaccine protects against.

Avoid contact with sick people

The influenza virus can:

• float in the air as droplets and travel 6 feet after someone coughs or sneezes.

• survive on surfaces or objects and infect you if they come into contact with your mouth or nose.

• be contagious for up to a week after symptoms start.

It’s important for anyone who is infected to stay home from work, school or activities. Also, be attentive to good, frequent handwashing, and if soap isn’t available, use alcohol-based sanitizer. And make sure to cough or sneeze into a sleeve (or tissue) to avoid virus from becoming airborne and clean surfaces and objects that may be exposed.

Available treatments

There are FDA-approved influenza antiviral drugs that your healthcare provider may prescribe to make the illness milder and shorten the time you are sick. These medications are most effective when started within 48 hours and should be considered, in particular, for those who are at an increased risk for flu complications.

Over-the-counter medications are available to treat symptoms, including fever, aches, sore throat and a runny, congested nose as well as post-nasal drip. Read labels carefully and avoid taking medications that have the same ingredients or have ingredients that would interact. If you are unsure, speak to your pharmacist.

It is also very important to drink plenty of fluids. Dehydration may occur because of fever, lack of appetite, vomiting or diarrhea. Most importantly, stay home, rest and recover!

Given the severity of recent flu seasons, now is the time to do everything you can to help protect yourself.

Dr. Nina Radcliff, of Galloway Township, is a physician anesthesiologist, television medical contributor and textbook author. Email questions for Dr. Nina to editor@pressofac.com with “Dr. Nina” in the subject line. This article is for general information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions and cannot substitute for the advice from your medical professional.

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