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Question: I know so many people that are getting sick with respiratory symptoms and I’m so scared of getting the flu with all of the bad things I am hearing in the news. What can I do to protect myself and my family?

Answer: Yes, it is that peak time of year where talk about the influenza virus is everywhere on the news. The influenza virus, also known commonly as the “flu,” is a virus that is transmitted through respiratory secretions. The virus particles can be spread through coughing, sneezing, sharing food or utensils with someone sick with the virus or touching items of someone infected and then rubbing your eyes, nose or mouth after the fact.
Flu season usually begins in the month of October,  peaks between December through February,  and can last through the month of May. The influenza virus can affect anyone at any age, but those at greatest risk for the most severe illness and symptoms of the flu include those under the age of 6 months, pregnant women and the elderly.
The most common symptoms of the influenza virus include, but may not be limited to:

Fever of 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.
– Headache
– Body aches/ myalgias
– Cough
– Sneezing
– Sore throat
– Nausea/vomiting
– Diarrhea
– Fatigue
– Chills

Most people’s symptoms begin within 4 days of coming in contact with the virus. The virus is easily spread in places that people are in close quarters or contact, including:

– Daycare
– School
– Dormitories
– Military quarters
– Nursing homes
– Airports/airplanes
– Work stations

flu2The influenza virus has 2 common strains that commonly occur each year, Type A and Type B, however there are other strains, and the virus can constantly mutate and “drift.” Therefore, it is very important for everyone over the age of six months to get vaccinated each year. Everyone should get vaccinated before the flu season begins to provide the greatest coverage, however if you’re unable to get vaccinated before flu season begins, it is still advised to get it during the season, as it can likely prevent the severity of symptoms. Given that the medical community has to guess what strains will likely be common each year before the flu season actually begins to create vaccines, it is impossible to ensure the vaccine covers all strains, as viruses are constantly changing and mutating.

Nevertheless,  physicians recommend getting an influenza vaccine yearly to lower the risk of infection, build antibodies against the virus in the vaccine, and to decrease the severity of symptoms if one does get influenza. For those in contact with children under the age of six months, whom are too young to be vaccinated, adult vaccination provides the best protection for these young ones. It is also important to get vaccinated if you live with others that are high risk to get sick (such as diabetics, immunosuppressed patients, including patients on chemotherapy, and those who have HIV/AIDS).
Secondly, hand washing is so important during the influenza season, and avoiding contact with those who are sick. Most hospitals are banning children in hospitals during the flu season to reduce the risk of children getting infected as well.
Most healthy people that experience flu like symptoms are able to treat their symptoms with rest, fluids and over the counter medications for symptom management. However,  for those that are at high risk for complications as discussed above, young children, pregnant women or the elderly should see a physician within 48 hours of symptoms to be prescribed antiviral medication such as Tamiflu to reduce symptom severity and shorten the course. The influenza virus can cause complicated respiratory issues and pneumonias, so if not treated early can be severe and even lead to death.

Given that information, take extra precautions to wash hands before and after touching doorknobs, light switches, buttons on elevators,  after being in contact with those that may be sick and before eating or touching ones face to prevent the spread of the virus. By doing this, it could prevent you and your family members from experiencing the horrible symptoms of the influenza season that we are in the midst of. Stay safe and keep clean hands this flu season!

Melissa James MD