According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the flu is defined as a contagious respiratory illness which can cause mild to severe illness and even hospitalization. The CDC recommends an influenza vaccination each year for everyone as young as 6 months of age, but especially for older individuals. People age 65 years and older are considered a high risk of serious flu complications, due in part to the immune system becoming weaker as we age.
We all know the signs – body aches, cough, runny nose, and chills. If you’re experiencing a combination of these symptoms and others, it typically means the flu. The virus can be spread starting one day before any of these symptoms are present. Caregivers are also at high risk for getting the flu, and can easily spread it if not vaccinated. It’s critical to keep not only themselves healthy, but also those they care for.
Influenza spreads each year, but the onset, peak and end of the activity, as well as the severity varies each year. This unpredictability makes it hard to know the best time to be vaccinated. Receiving the vaccination too early may, in turn, affect the potency against the flu later in the season, and it’s best to be vaccinated before the start of any flu activity in your community. To try to balance this, the CDC recommends getting vaccinated by the end of October when possible.
In addition to receiving the influenza vaccination, everyday preventative measures to reduce the spread of germs include covering the mouth when coughing, washing hands often and avoiding others who are ill.
Symptoms and Diagnosis
Influenza and its symptoms typically come on suddenly. A person may feel some or all of these symptoms:
- Fever and/or chills
- Sore throat
- Body aches
Since the flu and common cold are both respiratory illnesses with similar symptoms, it may be difficult for a person to know the difference. In general, influenza is worse than the common cold and can lead to other health complications such as pneumonia or bacterial infections. There are laboratory tests available to diagnose if a person has the influenza virus, but generally a doctor will not perform this test and will suggest the same care and treatment.
If you are at high risk and get sick with the flu, contact your doctor. There are antiviral medications available as a treatment option which can reduce the sickness by 1 or 2 days, lessen the symptoms, and prevent further complications associated with the flu.
Trying to time the vaccination just right is not as important as making sure you get one, particularly if you are considered a high risk of serious flu complications due to age or other health conditions. Although you can still get influenza even if you have been vaccinated, studies show that the severity is greatly reduced. If a person has been vaccinated, but still comes down with the flu it may be due to exposure to the virus prior to receiving the vaccination or even exposure to a strain of the flu that is not included in the vaccination.
Play it safe! Take the time to get vaccinated and stay healthy this flu season.