From year to year, we’re never sure how bad that year’s strain of flu will be or even if the latest version of a vaccine will be sufficiently effective. One thing we can count on, though: some form of influenza will hit our shores, and it will be largely up to us to protect ourselves from getting the flu. It is also our duty to take measures to keep it from spreading to others if we are unlucky enough for the flu to catch us (vs. our catching it).
As we move deeper into fall with winter just over two months away, our exposure to the flu virus increases, and “flu season” often continues into spring. What is the flu? It’s a super-contagious virus that makes us feel miserable, with symptoms more numerous and severe than the common cold’s typical sneezes and stuffed-up nose.
Influenza viruses are found in body fluids such as saliva and mucous. Infection occurs when “viruses attack host organisms through epithelial cells of the nose, throat and respiratory system,” per 3dscience.com.
Colds are annoying; the flu is serious business. Since 2010, per webmd.com, between 12,000 and 56,000 people in the United States have annually died from the flu, with 9 million to 35 million Americans each year getting sick from the flu.
When we contract the flu, symptoms usually appear quickly instead of developing slowly over time. Typical flu symptoms include high fever, headache, muscle aches, cough, sore throat, and tiredness. Other symptoms could include runny or stuffy nose – which is why flu often gets confused with a cold – as well as chills, nausea and, ugh, vomiting.
How bad will the 2017-18 flu season be? Who knows? “Whether a season will be mild or severe is very difficult to predict. Flu is fickle,” says Dr. William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, per webmd.com.
Fast Flu Facts
Here are some things worth knowing about the flu:
- Only 47 percent of Americans got a flu shot last year, meaning that more than half of us were left unprotected.
- Children between six months and eight years of age are advised to get two doses of flu shots, with a month’s interval between shots, per webmd.com.
- Most flu symptoms last about five days, although a bout with the flu can leave you feeling weak or drained for another couple weeks, maybe longer.
- You can catch the flu even without making physical contact with someone so afflicted. A sneeze or cough can send virus-filled droplets into the air to be breathed in by you. Anyone 10 feet or closer to an ill person, watch out!
- If you get the flu, forget antibiotics – they are ineffective against the flu virus. Bacterial infection? Sure, but the flu by itself is not a bacterial infection.
- More than any other vaccine-preventable disease, influenza can cause hospitalizations among young children (aged five and younger), per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
- Pregnant women are four times more likely to be hospitalized for influenza than the general population.
- The flu vaccine is no guarantee to prevent you from getting the flu, but it can help reduce symptoms and duration.
Flu Prevention Tips
One thing that never gets old: reminding yourself of the measures you should take at the onset of flu season to keep from getting or even spreading the virus. Many of the suggestions are good for year-round hygiene, but especially helpful this time of year and the six months or so that lay ahead:
- Wash your hands obsessively. Use soap and warm water every time you use the bathroom and before and after meals. Alcohol-based hand sanitizer works well, too, per prevention.com. Keep some handy, at home and at work, and in a purse if you carry one.
- Keep your hands and fingers away from your eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. If you habitually bite your fingernails or pick your nose, well, what can we say?
- At work, keep your cubicle or desk clean. This includes wiping down or disinfecting your phone and keyboard, and any other desktop device you touch frequently.
- Get enough sleep. Seven to eight hours a night is recommended. A recent Carnegie Mellon study, per prevention.com, found that sleeping at least eight hours a night can make you 30 percent less likely to develop a cold, and, presumably, that bodes well for guarding against flu as well.
- Stay home when sick. There’s nothing heroic about going to work when sick with the flu – you put co-workers at risk. Such heroes can be zeroes.
- Cover your nose or mouth when coughing or sneezing. Not just with your hand either; use a handkerchief or sneeze or cough into the crook of your arm.
- Avoid close contact with those who are sick. Keep your distance when sick yourself.