“The flu is a very contagious virus that typically enters the body through the mouth, nose or eyes,” said Catherine Cheng, MD, an internal medicine physician at Northwestern Integrative Medicine. “If a person who is infected coughs or sneezes, the virus can then become airborne, spreading quickly to those in close proximity to them.”
Flu season usually runs from October through May, often peaking in the United States during January or February. Cheng says that the flu vaccination is the best way to avoid getting the flu, and an important measure to protect your friends and family members too. This year’s vaccine includes protection against the H3N2 virus, an influenza B virus and the H1N1 virus.
Cheng notes that there are numerous misconceptions surrounding the flu. “The flu vaccine does not put you at risk of getting the flu, it prevents it,” said Cheng. “Getting a flu shot may cause temporary, minor side effects, the most common being stiffness at the injection site. Since the vaccine also stimulates the body’s immune system, you may feel under the weather for a couple of days; to maximize your body’s chances of building up antibody against the virus get plenty of rest, drink fluids and maintain a healthy diet.”
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 early in the season. 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.
“If you come down with the flu, antiviral drugs are highly effective if taken within 48 hours of your first flu symptoms,” said 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,” added Cheng. “Cover your mouth and nose at your elbow when you cough or sneeze and maintain healthy habits like getting plenty of rest and exercise.”