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The flu is here and it's spreading fast. Experts expect this to be the worst flu season in years With 700 cases currently on the books, Boston, Mass. just issued a health emergency. People across the country are showing up at emergency rooms with flu symptoms, like body aches, chills, fever and flat-out exhaustion. Here's what you need to know to protect yourself as we approach the peak flu season.
Go Get Your Shot -- There's Plenty Available!
A flu vaccine each year is still the single best way to avoid influenza. After shortages during the swine flu epidemic, health officials have apparently learned their lessons and are armed and ready with plenty of seasonal flu vaccines. There will be no shortages this year. But that’s no reason to dawdle: After you get the shot, your immune system has to produce antibodies against the viruses in the vaccine. That means you won’t be protected for about two weeks.
What Does the Vaccine Protect Against?
Each year, the flu vaccine protects against three different strains of influenza, based on which ones researchers believe will cause the most illnesses this season. This year’s vaccine inoculates against H1N1 (swine flu), H3N2, as well as from the B/Yamagata lineage, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Who's At Risk?
The predominate H3N2 strain making the rounds this year could cause more severe symptoms for kids and seniors, causing complications such as pneumonia, bronchitis, and sinus infections. Though the CDC recommends that everyone six months and older should be vaccinated, the following populations are particularly at risk:
- Pregnant women
- Children under age five, especially those under two
- People 65 years of age and older
- Anyone with chronic medical conditions, like asthma, diabetes, and chronic lung disease.
- People who live with or care for those at high risk
Start Washing Your Hands
Because people are contagious before they start showing symptoms, you can be exposed without even knowing it. Flu symptoms usually begin one to four days after exposure and last about a week. You can’t get the flu from breathing the same air as someone who is infected, but if someone sneezes or coughs, the virus can land on your face or hands. If it gets into your eyes, nose or mouth and you haven’t been vaccinated, consider yourself infected.
The CDC recommends these measures to avoid the flu:
- Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.
- Your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Germs spread this way.
- Try to avoid close contact with sick people.
- If you are sick with flu-like illness, CDC recommends that you stay home for at least 24
- hours after your fever is gone except to get medical care or for other necessities. (Your fever should be gone without the use of a fever-reducing medicine.)
- While sick, limit contact with others as much as possible to keep from infecting them.
You can also get sick from touching something that an infected person has touched. The flu virus can survive on hard surfaces -- and remain contagious -- for up to eight hours. That’s why in addition to getting vaccinated, it’s so important to wash your hands often (for as long as it takes to sing "Happy Birthday to You") and to always sneeze into your elbow.