You can avoid the flu this season by taking one simple step: Get a flu vaccination.
Unfortunately, some people think that getting a flu immunization is too much trouble or costs too much. Or, they swear that a flu immunization will make them sick or make them more likely to catch the flu—or even colds.
Seasonal influenza—the flu—is caused by one of several strains of influenza viruses (type A or B) that infect the nose, throat and lungs, making life miserable for a week or two for many people—and deadly for some. Flu season can begin as early as October and peak anywhere from late December to early April, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Your best defense against the flu is to get immunized. Depending on your age, you can do that in one of two ways:
With a flu shot, given with a needle. This form of the vaccine contains killed virus and is approved for all people older than age 6 months.
With a nasal-spray vaccine. This form contains live, weakened flu viruses that cannot cause the flu. This form is approved for healthy, nonpregnant people ages 2 to 49 years, except those who have diabetes, a weakened immune system, heart problems, or chronic respiratory disorders, such as asthma. Check with your doctor to see if this form of the vaccine is right for you.
A flu vaccination is most important for children 6 months to 59 months; adults ages 50 and older; anyone with a chronic disease; anyone who lives in a nursing home or other long-term care site; health care workers; and people who are in frequent contact with the elderly or chronically ill. The CDC says children between 6 months and age 8 who were never immunized or received only one dose of vaccine in the previous year should get two full doses of vaccine, one month apart.
Doctors also advise flu shots for women who plan to be pregnant during flu season. The CDC says flu shots are OK for breastfeeding mothers.
Even if you don't fall into one of the above groups, however, you are still a candidate for the vaccine if you want to avoid the flu.
Talk with your doctor first
Some people should not be vaccinated for the flu before talking to their health care provider, the CDC says. These are reasons to talk with your doctor:
You have a severe allergy—such as an anaphylactic reaction—to hen's eggs.
You had previously developed Guillian-Barré syndrome in the six weeks after getting a flu shot.
You currently have an illness with a fever; you should wait until symptoms improve before getting the vaccine.
Children younger than age 6 months should not be immunized against the flu, because the flu vaccines have not been approved for that age group.
Other prevention steps
Flu viruses are spread by contact with droplets sneezed or coughed from an infected person. Inhaling the droplets is the most common route to getting the flu, but many people also become infected by touching objects on which droplets have landed. You can spread the virus to others before you feel sick yourself. The CDC says you are infectious a day before symptoms begin and up to five days afterward.
You can protect yourself against the flu by doing simple things like washing your hands before eating and not putting your hands near your face or in your mouth. You don't need special cleansers when washing your hands; washing for at least 20 seconds with ordinary soap works fine. If someone in your family has the flu, you can keep surfaces clean of the virus by wiping them with a solution of one part bleach to 10 parts water.
The other effective means of flu prevention is humidity. The flu bug exists in higher quantities in dry nasal and oral passages, which is one reason why flu epidemics occur in dry winter months. By raising the humidity in your workplace and at home to keep your nasal passages and mouth moist, your body will be better able to flush out the flu bug.
Rooting out rumors
Don't believe the rumor that a flu shot can give you even a mild case of influenza. It is impossible. Neither form of the vaccine--by injection or nasal spray--contains a form of the flu virus that can give you the flu. The injected form of the vaccine is made from particles of dead flu virus cells, and the nasal spray contains live viruses that have been damaged so they can't cause a major infection.