“This year’s flu season is a classic example of the unpredictability of the flu virus,” said Catherine Cheng, MD, an internist with Northwestern Integrative Medicine. “It’s important for people to know that we’re not out of the woods just yet.”
An estimated five to 20 percent of the population is burdened with congestion, coughing spells, body aches, fatigue and fever associated with the seasonal flu each year. The highly contagious virus usually enters the body through the mouth, nose or eyes and can become airborne when an infected individual coughs or sneezes.
Flu season usually runs from October through May and peaks in the United States during January or February. “This year’s unexplainable delay in flu activity allows those who have not been vaccinated the chance protect themselves with a flu shot,” said Cheng. “The vaccine is the best way to avoid getting the flu, and an important measure to protect your friends and family as well.”
The vaccine includes protection against the H3N2 virus, an influenza B virus and the H1N1 virus. According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it takes two weeks for the body to build antibodies against the flu, which is why it’s important to get vaccinated as early in the season as possible. Experts recommend that everyone over the age of six months receive the flu vaccine and stresses the importance of the shot for the following high risk groups:
• Children under the age of five
• Adults age 65 and older
• Pregnant women
• Individuals with certain chronic or immunosuppressive conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease and asthma
• Native Americans
• Individuals under age 19 who are receiving long-term aspirin therapy
People who have had an allergic reaction to the vaccine in the past and those who suffer from egg allergies should not seek flu shots and should speak with a healthcare provider for an alternative method of protection. The vaccine is not approved for children younger than six months of age.
“Should you come down with the flu, antiviral drugs are highly effective if taken within 48 hours of your first flu symptoms,” added Cheng. “Taking these drugs can also reduce the amount of time you are sick and make you less contagious to others.”
In addition to the seasonal flu vaccine, general health routines help protect against the virus and other illnesses.
“Practicing good hand hygiene is the most important way to avoid spreading the flu virus,” said Cheng. “Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze and maintain healthy habits like getting plenty of rest and exercise. Good nutrition and staying hydrated with plenty of fluids are the cornerstones of defense to help you stay healthy.”