ORLANDO, Fla. — If you’ve ever had influenza or the flu, you know it’s no picnic. The flu is caused by a virus that can infect the throat, nose, and lungs, leading to respiratory illness. Although you can get the flu at any time of year, the virus tends to be most prevalent during the fall and winter. Some people become mildly ill after being infected with the flu virus while others can become very sick and end up needing to go to the hospital.
Understanding how the virus spreads and what you can do to prevent can help you keep yourself and your family safe and healthy this flu season.
The flu virus can spread from person to person. If a person who’s infected with the virus speaks, coughs, or sneezes, droplets containing the flu virus can travel from their mouth or nose. The droplets can travel up to six feet. If they land in the nose or mouth of another person, that person can become ill. In some cases, people can inhale the droplets and develop the flu or can pick up the virus after touching a contaminated surface.
Usually, people who have the flu are very contagious during the first few days after their symptoms appear. It’s possible for someone who has the virus but doesn’t yet have symptoms to spread it to others.
The symptoms of the flu can range from mild or moderate to very severe. Some of the most common symptoms associated with the virus include:
● Body aches
● Sore throat
● Runny nose or congestion
People who have weaker immune systems, who have ongoing respiratory issues such as asthma, who are over age 65 or under age 2, or who are pregnant, have a greater chance of developing a more severe case of the flu than others. Often, more severe flu cases are accompanied by complications, such as pneumonia or sinus infections.
The symptoms of the flu can seem similar to the symptoms associated with other respiratory illnesses, such as the common cold. But there are notable differences. Flu symptoms typically come on suddenly while the symptoms of a cold develop over a period of days. A fever is a common symptom of the flu but not the common cold.
The best way to prevent the flu or reduce your risk of developing a severe infection is to get a flu vaccine every year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that every person over the age of 6 months get an annual flu shot. The vaccine is available as either an injection or a nasal spray, depending on the age of the person receiving it.
Getting vaccinated against the flu is particularly important during the 2020-2021 flu season, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. If as many people as possible receive a flu shot this season, the number of patients who need to be admitted to the hospital due to flu complications or a severe case of the virus will be reduced, allowing health care professionals to focus on treating people who are dealing with severe cases of COVID-19.
The best time to get a flu vaccine is in the early fall, preferably by the end of October, but not so early that the effects of the vaccine wear off before the end of the flu season. Talk to your family doctor about the best time to get your flu vaccine.
In addition to getting your flu shot this year, there are other things you can do to reduce the risk of getting the flu. Wash your hands often and clean surfaces regularly. Try to avoid touching your mouth, nose, and eyes. Steer clear of people who are showing symptoms, and if you have symptoms yourself, stay home, and limit contact with others until the symptoms have cleared up.
Many people who develop the flu only need to rest and stay home until they feel better. Their symptoms will resolve as their immune system fights off the virus. If you develop flu symptoms and only feel somewhat ill, your best option is to stay home, avoid contact with other people, and wait. The CDC recommends staying home for at least an additional 24 hours after your fever has gone to reduce the chance of spreading the virus to others.
There are some people who might need more intensive treatment for the flu. If you are in a high-risk group, due to your age, pregnancy, or a chronic medical condition, you might want to schedule an appointment with your doctor if you start to show signs of the flu. Your medical provider might prescribe an antiviral medication to shorten the duration of your symptoms and to reduce the risk of developing complications.
The upcoming flu season is likely to be different from others, due to the pandemic. Limiting contact with others, wearing a facial covering when you’re out, and keeping at least six feet between yourself and people you don’t live with, can help to protect you from both COVID-19 and the flu this winter.
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