You can avoid the flu this season by taking 1 simple step: Get a flu shot.
Unfortunately, some people think that getting a flu immunization is too much trouble or costs too much. Or, they are sure 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 1 of several strains of influenza viruses (type A or B) that infect the nose, throat, and lungs. The flu makes life miserable for a week or 2 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 CDC.
Your best defense against the flu is to get immunized. Depending on your age, you can do that in 1 of 2 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 6 months of age.
With a nasal-spray vaccine. This form contains live, weakened flu viruses that can't cause the flu. This form is approved for healthy people ages 2 to 49 years. Exceptions are those who are pregnant or have diabetes, a weakened immune system, heart problems, or chronic respiratory disorders like asthma. Check with your health care provider to see if the nasal-spray vaccine is right for you.
A flu immunization is most important for children 6 months to 59 months and adults ages 50 and older. It is also important for 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 often in contact with elderly adults or the chronically ill. The CDC says children between ages 6 months and 8 years who were never immunized or received only 1 dose of vaccine in the previous year should get 2 full doses of vaccine, 1 month apart.
Health care providers also suggest 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 1 of the above groups, you can still get the vaccine if you want to avoid the flu.
Some people shouldn't be immunized for the flu before talking with their health care provider, the CDC says. These are reasons to talk with your health care provider:
You have a severe allergy — like an anaphylactic reaction — to chicken eggs.
You had previously developed Guillian-Barré syndrome in the 6 weeks after getting a flu shot.
You currently have an illness with a fever. Wait until symptoms improve before getting the vaccine.
Children younger than 6 months of age should not be immunized against the flu. Flu vaccines haven't been approved for that age group.
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. Touching objects on which droplets have landed also infects many people. You can spread the virus to others before you feel sick yourself. The CDC says you are contagious a day before symptoms begin and up to 5 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 1 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 1 reason why flu epidemics occur in dry winter months. Raise the humidity in your workplace and at home to keep your nasal passages and mouth moist. Your body will then be better able to flush out the flu bug.
Don't believe the rumor that a flu shot can give you even a mild case of influenza. It's 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 pieces of dead flu virus cells. The nasal spray contains live viruses that have been damaged so they can't cause a major infection.
When you are injected with the flu vaccine, your body reacts as if it has been infected with the actual living virus and makes antibodies that provide immunity against the real virus. These antibodies remain at high levels for only 6 months to 9 months. These disappearing antibody levels are 1 reason why you need to be revaccinated each year.
The main reason you should be revaccinated yearly is that the flu virus is constantly changing and evolving into new strains. Each year the CDC tries to guess which flu strain will be predominant. The CDC works with vaccine manufacturers to make the specific vaccine that will fight the predicted strain.
If you are concerned about the cost of a flu immunization, check with your local health department for locations in your area where free flu shots are given.