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A Simple Way to Keep the Flu Away

You can avoid the flu this season by taking one simple step: Get a flu vaccination.

Unfortunately, some people think that getting a flu immunization is too much trouble or costs too much. Or, they swear 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 one of several strains of influenza viruses (type A or B) that infect the nose, throat and lungs, making life miserable for a week or two 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.

Immunization facts

Your best defense against the flu is to get immunized. Depending on your age, you can do that in one of two 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, except those who are pregnant or have diabetes, a weakened immune system, heart problems, or chronic respiratory disorders, such as asthma. Check with your doctor to see if this form of the vaccine is right for you.

A flu vaccination is most important for children 6 to 59 months; adults ages 50 and older; 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 in frequent 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 one dose of vaccine in the previous year should get two full doses of vaccine, one month apart.

Doctors also advise 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 one of the above groups, however, you are still a candidate for the vaccine if you want to avoid the flu.

Talk with your doctor first

Some people shouldn't be vaccinated for the flu before talking with their health care provider, the CDC says. These are reasons to talk with your doctor:

  • You have a severe allergy—such as an anaphylactic reaction—to chicken eggs.

  • You had previously developed Guillian-Barré syndrome in the six weeks after getting a flu shot.

  • You currently have an illness with a fever; you should wait until symptoms improve before getting the vaccine.

Children younger than 6 months of age should not be immunized against the flu, because the flu vaccines haven't been approved for that age group.

Other prevention steps

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, but many people also become infected by touching objects on which droplets have landed. You can spread the virus to others before you feel sick yourself. The CDC says you are infectious a day before symptoms begin and up to five 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 one 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 one reason why flu epidemics occur in dry winter months. By raising the humidity in your workplace and at home to keep your nasal passages and mouth moist, your body will be better able to flush out the flu bug.

Rooting out rumors

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 particles of dead flu virus cells, and 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 six to nine months. These waning antibody levels are one reason why you need to be revaccinated each year.

The main reason you should be revaccinated yearly is the flu virus is constantly changing and evolving into new strains. Each year the CDC attempts to predict which flu strain will be predominant. The CDC works with vaccine manufacturers to produce the specific vaccine that will combat 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.