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Flu Facts: Protect Yourself this Flu Season

It’s all over the news: this year’s flu season is a big one, the most aggressive in more than 13 years.  Dr. Dan Jernigan, Director of the Influenza Division in the CDC’s national center, shared, “It has been a tough flu season so far this year. And while flu activity is beginning to go down in parts of the country, it remains high for most the U.S., with some areas still rising.”   Therefore, it is still very important to stay vigilant and take precautions to protect yourself and your family from catching the flu.

Most people who get the flu, will experience a variety of symptoms including fever, chills, muscle aches, cough, congestion, runny nose, headaches, and fatigue.  Most people will recover following only a brief period of discomfort, however the very young, the elderly and the immune compromised are at high risk for more severe symptoms including death.  Interestingly, this year’s flu is also affecting the baby boomer crowd particularly hard, ages 50-65.

How Does Flu Spread?

The CDC website states, “People with flu can spread it to others up to about 6 feet away. Most experts think that flu viruses are spread mainly by droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. Less often, a person might also get flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth or nose.”   If you are sick, it is best to stay home to avoid spreading the flu to others.

The flu virus is not a very strong virus outside of the body and does not live on surfaces for very long.  It does live longest on hard surfaces, up to 24 hours.  WebMD, states that the flu virus lives only minutes on soft surfaces such as towels and pillow cases, but it is still best not to share.  Cleaning products that contain bleach, alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, and detergents (soap) can kill the flu virus.  Periodic wiping of hard surfaces can help reduce spread from surface contact, however the CDC shares that flu spread from hard surfaces is less common than airborne, droplet spread.

How Long Am I Contagious?

You may be contagious even before you know you are sick.  According to the CDC, “You may be able to pass on the flu to someone else before you know you are sick, as well as while you are sick. Most healthy adults may be able to infect others beginning 1 day before symptoms develop and 5 to 7 days after becoming sick. Some people, especially young children and people with weakened immune systems, might be able to infect others for an even longer time.”

Stay home if your symptoms are severe or you have a fever as you are likely still contagious.  The CDC recommends being fever free for 24 hours before returning to work or school.   Avoid exposing high risk people to the flu and stop the spread by observing these guidelines.

How I Can I Avoid the Flu?

  1. Get a Flu Shot.  This years flu strain is one of the toughest (H3N2).  “When flu vaccines are well matched to circulating viruses, effectiveness is, at best, about 60 percent,” states the Washington Post.  This years vaccine is not well matched and the flu shot doesn’t work as well against the current strain dominating the US with only about a 10% effectiveness rate.  That being said, there is still an upside to getting the shot, with a reduced risk of getting the flu from other circulating strains. It is also not too late to get a shot as there are several weeks to go before this flu season ends.
  2. Avoid Sick People (Crowds).  You can’t get the flu if you are not exposed to the virus.  Do your best to avoid people who are showing cold or flu symptoms.  Crowds, hospitals, doctor’s offices, and schools offer increased opportunities for exposure.  If you are sick, do everyone a favor and stay home!
  3. Wash Your Hands…A Lot.  Wash for at least 20 seconds with soap and water.  Alcohol based hand sanitizers are also effective and great to put in your child’s back pack!
  4. Keep Your Hands Away From Your Face!  Your nose, eyes and mouth are the gateways for the flu to enter your body.
  5. Wear a Mask.  A surgical mask can reduce the exposure to droplet spread.
  6. Wipe Down Hard Surfaces.  Although not a primary infection route, touching hard surfaces contaminated with flu virus and then touching your mouth, nose or eyes, can be a way to catch the flu.  Periodic wiping of commonly touched, shared surfaces, like door knobs, light switches, stair railings, faucets, etc. may help reduce your risk.
  7. Stock Up on Hand Sanitzer.  In classrooms, offices, at home and elsewhere, easy access to alcohol based hand sanitizer can help control the spread of the flu.  There are even fun versions of this product available with glitter, perfume and color!  Kids might be more apt to use hand sanitizer if it is fun.  Check out Bath and Body Works to see their wide selection of minis.

What do I do if I Get the Flu?

Prompt treatment (within two days) with antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu are used to treat confirmed cases of the flu, particularly those at highest risk.   They can reduce symptom severity and decrease the amount of time the flu lasts.  These are prescription medicines that are different than antibiotics (which treat bacterial infections). Even if you have been vaccinated, if you develop severe flu symptoms or in a high risk group, you should see your doctor.

Taking care of yourself by staying hydrated and eating a well balanced diet can also help reduce the severity of symptoms. Over the counter medications to treat your symptoms can help keep you more comfortable.  Consult your pharmacist or doctor for recommendations.

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