It's flu season: What you need to know

 
Submitted by Northwestern Medicine
Updated 12/10/2018 7:17 AM
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  • Are you coughing? Do you have a fever, chills, a sore throat or a headache?

    Are you coughing? Do you have a fever, chills, a sore throat or a headache? File photo

Are you coughing? Do you have a fever, chills, a sore throat or a headache?

You might have influenza, also known as the flu.

A severe respiratory illness, the flu can be easily spread -- usually from coughing or sneezing -- and can lead to severe complications and even death.

On average each year, about 5 percent to 20 percent of the population gets the flu and more than 200,000 people are hospitalized for flu-related complications.

So how can we change these statistics?

"The best way to avoid getting the flu is to give your body a better chance to fight infection, and that starts with a flu shot," said Dr. Lubna Madani, north region medical director, Northwestern Medicine. "Flu vaccines may vary in effectiveness from year to year, but getting the shot increases your chances of being protected and lessens your symptoms if you do get ill."

Flu myths

Each year as the flu season approaches, doctors hear the same myths from patients. These include:

"The flu shot can make me sick."

The flu vaccine is made from an inactivated virus that can't cause infection. So, if you get sick after getting a flu vaccination, you were likely going to get sick anyway.

It usually takes a week or two to get protection from the vaccine, so many people assume that because they got sick after getting the vaccine, the shot caused their illness. This just isn't true.

"I never get vaccinated, and I never get the flu, so I don't need the shot."

You just happened to get lucky. You can never predict when you'll get the flu.

"The flu isn't dangerous."

Wrong. The flu can be very serious, particularly among young children, older adults and people with certain chronic health conditions, such as asthma, heart disease or diabetes. And, although the flu may not sound very scary, it is far more prevalent than many other diseases you see in headlines and on TV.

"I don't need a flu shot every year."

Yes, you probably do -- for two reasons.

First, your body's immune response from a vaccination declines over time, so you need this annual vaccine to give yourself the best protection.

Second, the flu virus characteristics are constantly changing, so the formulation for the flu vaccine is continuously updated to keep up with these changes. People aged six months and older should get vaccinated annually.

If you have any allergies or health concerns, contact your physician first before getting vaccinated.

Immunizations are one of the greatest advances in preventive medicine. The flu shot is not right for everyone, however. Talk to your physician about whether you should have a flu shot.

Prevention

Because the timing of the flu is unpredictable and varies in different parts of the country, besides getting your immunization, you can take every day preventive actions to decrease your chances of getting the flu. These include:

Keep your hands clean

Hand hygiene is the simplest way to stop transmission of illness.

You can pick up the flu from a simple handshake, or from handrails and other surfaces that are frequently touched and are likely to harbor germs.

In these situations, avoid touching your face, eyes or mouth until you have had a chance to clean your hands. The best way to protect yourself is to carry hand sanitizer for quick hand hygiene when you're on the go.

Take care of yourself

A healthy body has a healthy immune system. To give your body a fighting chance if you're exposed to flu, take care of yourself with a healthy diet, plenty of water, good sleep and routine exercise.

Avoid people who are ill

Don't visit with someone who has flu, and skip a social event if you know someone there is sick.

Of course, as you move through your day, you won't always be able to avoid people who are ill. If you do find yourself in contact with someone who may be sick, be sure to wash your hands or use hand sanitizer as soon as possible after the encounter.

Not sure if you have a cold or the flu?

While the cold and flu season can be unpredictable, the common cold and mild cases of the flu usually last about two weeks.

You may find temporary relief with over-the-counter medications and by drinking plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration and staying home to rest.

However, if your symptoms are getting worse instead of better, this may be a sign of something more serious.

If you have the following, it's time to call your physician:

• Persistent vomiting

• A cough that lasts more than 10 days

• A cough that produces thick greenish-yellow phlegm

• Chest pain

• Shortness of breath

• A prolonged fever over 102 degrees in adults (103 or higher in children)

"The flu can turn into a more serious condition such as pneumonia, bronchitis or an ear infection -- especially in babies, older adults and people with chronic health conditions -- so take these signs seriously and seek professional advice," Madani said.

If you get flu

Sometimes, it's just not possible to avoid getting sick. When this happens, remember:

• Stay home until symptoms resolve. You're not letting anyone down by calling in sick or canceling a family get -together. You're doing everyone a favor by helping avoid spreading germs.

• Get plenty of rest.

• Drink plenty of fluids. Stay hydrated by drinking water, juice or non-caffeinated tea.

• If your symptoms become severe, call your physician. Flu can turn into a more serious condition such as pneumonia, bronchitis or an ear infection -- especially in babies, older adults and people with chronic health conditions.

• Northwestern Medicine Immediate Care Centers in Glenview, Deerfield and Vernon Hills offer flu shots and have physicians available to discuss the flu shot or if you are feeling flu-like symptoms. For more information, call (312) 694-2273 or go to www.nm.org/conditions-and-care-areas/immediate-care-convenient-care#northern-suburbs.

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