5 things you should know about the flu
You’ve probably seen the signs in your local pharmacy, doctor’s office, even the grocery store. They all have the same message—it’s time to get your annual flu shot. Although flu activity is still low in most states, the time to start getting ready is now, well before the number of people with the flu grows and your risk of exposure to the virus increases.
Here’s what you need to know to lower your risk of getting sick this year.
- The flu can be dangerous. During last year’s severe flu season, more than 80,000 people died of the flu and its complications, including 180 children. That’s the highest number of flu-related deaths in the U.S. in 40 years. And while the majority of people recover in a week or two, people over 65, pregnant women, children 5 and younger, and those with chronic or serious health conditions, including asthma, diabetes, heart disease, HIV infection and AIDS, and cancer are at higher risk for serious complications such as pneumonia, myocarditis (inflammation of the heart), encephalitis, and organ damage or failure.
- The flu shot is the best prevention. To lower your risk of getting sick, get a flu shot, preferably before the end of October, although you can still benefit even if you get your shot in January. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), vaccination prevented an estimated 5.3 million illnesses, 2.6 million medical visits, and 85,000 influenza-associated hospitalizations during the 2016-17 flu season. Of course, the vaccine doesn’t provide 100% protection, but even if you do get the virus, your illness will be less severe. A 2017 study found that vaccination reduced ICU admissions and complications like pneumonia. When you get immunized, you’re also helping to protect your family, friends, and co-workers who may be more vulnerable to the disease.
- You need to get vaccinated every year. Unlike a measles or DPT vaccine, you need a flu shot every year. That’s because the strains of the virus that are circulating change every year, so the previous year’s vaccine may no longer be effective. The formulation of the vaccine is reviewed and updated every year. This year a new strain of the influenza B and H3N2 viruses are being included. In addition, your body’s immune response to the vaccine gradually wanes over time.
- You can lower your risk of getting sick. In addition to getting a flu shot, there are several steps you can take to lower your risk of falling ill. Wash your hands vigorously with soap and water for at least 15 seconds. If that’s not possible, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Avoid touching your eyes, mouth, and nose, which are points where the virus can enter your body. When possible, avoid crowds. Disinfect surfaces like counters, faucets, doorknobs, and desks. You can also boost your immune system by getting adequate sleep, exercising, eating a healthy diet, and managing stress.
- There are steps you can take to speed your recovery. Stay home from work or school for at least 24 hours after you’re fever-free and rest. To manage symptoms like fever and aches, take an over-the-counter medication like acetaminophen or ibuprofen. If you’re coughing a lot, you may also want to take a cough suppressant. Because dehydration is a risk with the flu, drink water, broth, or tea frequently. If you’re at higher risk for complications, see your doctor if you think you have the flu and ask whether he or she recommends anti-viral medications.