Influenza a.k.a. "The Flu"

Influenza is commonly referred to as "the flu." It is a highly contagious viral infection of the nose, throat, and lungs. The flu is one of the most severe illnesses of the winter season. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, the flu is the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S.

Peak flu season is between December and March. The CDC says the highest numbers of illnesses are reported in February. A vaccination (flu shot) is your best protection against the flu and its complications. October is the best time to get a flu shot. However, getting the shot later can still offer protection.

How Often Should I Get a Shot?

You need to get a flu shot each year. Why? Because a virus causes the flu and viruses have the ability to change. A new vaccine must be developed each year to match the new virus. About two weeks after your shot, you will have protection against the new flu virus.

Is the Flu Shot Safe?

Contrary to popular belief, you cannot get the flu from the "flu shot." The vaccine is very safe and generally has few side effects. There may be some soreness, redness, or slight swelling where the shot was given. Some people get a headache or slight fever for a day. But most people have no side effects at all.

Who Should Get the Flu Shot?

  • People 65 years of age and older.
  • Children 6 to 23 months old.
  • Adults and children with chronic health problems.
  • Women who will be more than three months pregnant during flu season.

How to Know if You Have the Flu!

If you get the flu, symptoms will appear rapidly within hours to a day. A high fever, chills, dry cough, and a headache are common. You may also have a runny nose, congestion, sore throat, aches, and pains. The flu will cause extreme fatigue lasting several days even weeks.

The flu will also last longer than a common cold. While you are sick, try not to put others at risk. The virus is easily spread from person to person. When an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks, the virus becomes airborne. Others then pick it up.

Severe cases can result in viral or bacterial pneumonia. Illnesses such as congestive heart failure, diabetes, and asthma can worsen during a bout with the flu. The elderly and people who are already sick are more likely to require hospital care.

Self Care with the Flu

Since a virus causes the flu--antibiotics like penicillin do not work to cure it. There are several antiviral drugs available by prescription only. When started within the first two days of illness, they can shorten illness. But they cannot cure it outright.

  • Bed rest is needed.
  • Take aspirin or non-aspirin pain releasers to ease muscle aches.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to help flush the virus out of your system.
  • Reduce the risk to others by staying at home until you recover.
  • Practice basic hygiene: wash hands often, cover nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze.
  • If severe symptoms last more than five days, see a doctor.

For more information visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at Call the toll-free number at 1-800-232-2522 to talk with a CDC specialist.

Written by: Drusilla Banks, Educator, Nutrition and Wellness, University of Illinois Extension, Chicago Extension Center


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