Gearing Up for Flu Season: What to Know to Stay Healthy
Northwestern Memorial physicians provide flu prevention strategies to keep you well
Flu season is just around the corner, and while early reports suggest it will be a milder season, experts caution that the flu can be dangerous and remind us that it can usually be prevented with a simple flu shot.
“The anticipation of a more mild flu season does not mean that people should brush off getting a flu shot,” said Teresa Zembower, MD, medical director and healthcare epidemiologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and associate professor of medicine and infectious disease at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone over the age of six months receive the vaccine this year--not just those who are at highest risk.”
What is the Flu
The flu is a highly contagious virus that usually enters the body through the mouth, nose or eyes. The virus can become airborne if an infected individual coughs or sneezes, thus spreading rapidly to people within close proximity. Flu symptoms are often mistaken for catching a cold or simply feeling under the weather; however, the sudden onset of symptoms, such as severe muscle aches, extreme fatigue, chills, severe chest discomfort and dry, unproductive coughing, most commonly signal the flu.
"Mild flu symptoms can quickly progress and become severe,” said Zembower. “If you have the flu, it’s important to take precautions to protect yourself and those around you by staying home and avoiding close contact with others until you are fever-free for at least 24 hours. This will help stop the spread of the virus.”
Who Should get Vaccinated
For the first time, the CDC is recommending that all individuals older than six months of age receive the vaccine, and they stress that flu shots are particularly important for the following high risk groups:
- Children under the age of five
- Adults age 65 and older
- Pregnant women
- Individuals with certain chronic or immunosuppressive conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease and asthma
- People living with compromised immune systems due to cancer, HIV or AIDS
- Native Americans
- Individuals under age 19 who are receiving long-term aspirin therapy
People who have had an allergic reaction to the vaccine in the past and those who suffer from egg allergies should not seek flu shots and should speak with a healthcare provider for an alternative method of protection. The vaccine is not approved for children younger than six months.
When To Get Vaccinated
Flu season typically begins in November and runs through March. To offer the best protection possible, doctors recommend getting vaccinated early.
“Many healthcare providers, including Northwestern Memorial, are already in receipt of the vaccine and have started offering flu shots,” said Zembower. “Contact your physician to find out when they will have flu shots available and to schedule a time to receive the vaccine.”
This year's annual flu shot will offer protection against two new viruses as well as the H1N1 virus that caused the pandemic last season. Only one vaccine is needed this year.
Avoid Spreading the Flu
Practicing good hand hygiene is the single most important way to avoid spreading the flu virus. In addition, be sure to cover your mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing. It’s also important to get adequate rest, exercise, drink plenty of fluids and practice good nutrition. Doing so will not only offer some protection from the seasonal flu, but from other cold viruses that often circulate during the fall and winter months as well.