Influenza, commonly called the “flu,” is a contagious viral infection that affects the respiratory system — your nose, throat and lungs. Symptoms of the flu can include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. Some people may also have vomiting and diarrhea.
Influenza is a serious disease that can lead to hospitalization and sometimes, even death. Every flu season is different and the influenza infection can affect people differently. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that since 1976, flu-associated deaths have ranged from a low of about 3,000 people to a high of about 49,000 people, each consecutive year.
The first and most important step is to get a flu vaccination each year. Remember, the vaccine is not a live virus. Therefore, it is impossible for the vaccine to give you the flu. With very few exceptions, everyone 6 months of age and older should get an annual flu vaccine as soon as vaccines are available. Vaccination is especially important for people at high risk to decrease their likelihood of getting sick and possibly having serious illness. People at high risk of serious flu complications include young children, pregnant women, people with chronic health conditions, such as asthma, diabetes or heart and lung disease and people 65 years and older.
Getting vaccinated is the most important step towards protecting yourself and those around you from flu. Unfortunately, there are a couple of reasons why it is still possible to get the flu, despite being vaccinated. First, people may be exposed to a flu virus shortly before being vaccinated, or during the two-week period it takes the body to develop an immune response to protect against the virus. Second, there is a possibility of catching a different flu virus not included in the vaccine. Most of the viruses characterized by CDC have been like the viruses in the vaccine, but the flu vaccine is not likely to protect against other viruses. Last, sometimes the flu vaccine does not effectively protect some people, which means that some will get sick with the flu despite being vaccinated. The ability of flu vaccine to protect a person depends, in part, on the health and age of the person getting the vaccination. In general, the flu vaccine works best among young healthy adults and older children. Some older people and those with certain chronic illnesses may develop less immunity after vaccination. For that reason, it is important to know what else can be done to decrease the chances of getting sick and what to do if you do get sick with flu.
Everyday preventive actions are steps that people can take to help slow the spread of germs that cause respiratory illness, like flu. They are not a substitute for vaccination. These include the following personal and community actions:
- Avoid close contact with sick people.
- If you or your child gets sick with a respiratory illness, like flu, limit contact with others as much as possible to help prevent spreading illness. Stay home (or keep your child home) for at least 24 hours after fever is gone except to seek medical care, or for other necessities. Fever should be gone without the use of a fever-reducing medicine.
- If an outbreak of flu or another illness occurs, follow public health advice. This may include information about how to increase distance between people and other measures.
- Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. This will block the spread of droplets from your mouth or nose that could contain germs.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.
If you do get the flu, there are antiviral drugs that can treat your illness. They are a second line of defense. This type of medication is not available over-the-counter so you will need a prescription, but antiviral drugs can make your illness milder and shorten the time you are sick. They are most effective when started within two days of getting sick, though starting them later can still be helpful, especially for those with high-risk conditions. Early treatment is especially important for people who are at high risk of flu complications. Your doctor will decide whether you need antiviral drugs and CDC has provided guidance on who should be treated.
Master Sgts. Dawn Joy and Michele Goodman, 452d Aerospace Medicine Squadron staff, suggest the following additional, immune-strengthening tips and ways of reducing the spread of the flu virus:
- Maintain a healthy diet, including substantial amounts of fruits and vegetables
- Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate
- Ensure adequate rest and plenty of exercise
Let us all do our part to prevent the flu.