Every fall you and millions of other people brace for flu season, and you desperately hope you’ll somehow escape unscathed.
It’s no wonder you’re worried. Much worse than a cold, influenza can bring on cough, high fever, fatigue, sore throat and achiness. Every year more than 200,000 Americans end up in the hospital because of the flu, and depending on the severity of the outbreak, as many as 50,000 people could die.
What can you do to protect yourself and your family?
Because the flu is highly contagious, you can catch it when people with the illness cough, sneeze or talk and you come in contact with the invisible droplets they spread. You can also get the flu by touching a contaminated surface or object and then touching your mouth, eyes or nose.
“That’s why everyone 6 months and older should get vaccinated against influenza every year, especially people in high-risk groups,” says Kim S. Erlich, M.D., medical director of Infection Control and Prevention at Mills-Peninsula Health Services. The flu is especially dangerous for babies, pregnant women, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems or chronic health issues.
The flu vaccine not only prevents you from getting sick but also helps stop the spread of the disease. “Healthy people need to get vaccinated because it protects everyone else in the community, including those who may not respond well to the vaccine and are most at risk of dying from the illness,” says Dr. Erlich. “By agreeing to be vaccinated, you’re not only protecting yourself, but you’re also protecting your families, co-workers, neighbors and community.”
A few persistent myths might dissuade you from getting the vaccine, but rest assured, it’s safe and effective. Despite what you may have heard, the flu shot doesn’t cause the flu. Side effects are usually mild and may include soreness and swelling at the injection site.
If you’re the parent of a baby or toddler, perhaps you’re concerned about the vaccine ingredient thimerosal and its previously suspected connection to autism. With the exception of multi-dose vials, the flu vaccine no longer contains this preservative, and studies definitively show that thimerosal is not linked to autism. Visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention websiteOpens new window for more answers about flu vaccine safety.
The flu vaccine changes year to year because the virus mutates over time. The World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predict which viral strains will circulate during the upcoming flu season. Scientists formulate each year’s vaccine based on those expectations.
“In 2015, the vaccine was a good match for the circulating strains, and it was highly protective,” Dr. Erlich says. “Most people who got vaccinated stayed healthy throughout the flu season.”
As flu science progresses, vaccines improve, and you now have more choices than ever for receiving the vaccine.
Like most vaccines, the flu shot isn’t foolproof, so protect yourself and others with good hygiene. Use alcohol-based sanitizer or wash your hands frequently, using soap and water for at least 20 seconds each time.
“If you do get the flu, drink plenty of fluids, get a lot of rest and take acetaminophen for fever and over-the-counter decongestants for symptom relief, as directed by your doctor,” Dr. Erlich says. “Stay home and avoid other people, especially those who are high risk.”
Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, or cough or sneeze into the crook of your arm. Once you’re symptom-free and feverless without the help of medication, stay home an additional 24 to 48 hours to prevent spreading the flu to others.
If you’re in one of the high-risk groups and you get the flu, contact your doctor. He or she can treat you with antiviral drugs, such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu), to help lessen the severity and duration of the illness.