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Protect yourself, family from the flu
Health advice
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Hasn’t the weather lately been wonderful? Even the rainy days have been invigorating, leaving everything looking fresh, green and almost spring-like. It’s hard to imagine that folks up north already are starting to experience cold weather and episodes of flu-like illnesses.
While it is not always possible to predict the timing, severity or types of flu viruses that will dominate during a given season, it is likely that last year’s H1N1 viruses (swine flu) will continue to spread along with seasonal viruses this flu season.
Influenza, or flu, is a respiratory infection caused by a variety of flu viruses. The flu differs in several ways from the common cold — another respiratory infection caused by viruses — in that colds rarely cause fevers, headaches or extreme exhaustion while flu viruses do.
Flu outbreaks usually begin suddenly and occur mainly in the late fall and winter. The disease spreads through communities and can cause an epidemic. Fifty percent of the population of a community may be affected. Because schools are an excellent place for flu viruses to attack and spread, families with school-aged children tend to have more infections than other families, with an average of one-third of family members infected each year.
The flu is serious because it can cause dangerous complications. Most people who get the flu get better within a week, although a cough may linger and flu patients may tire easily for longer periods of time. But for elderly people, newborn babies and people with certain chronic illnesses, the flu and its complications can be life-threatening.
Flu is very contagious and you can get it if an affected person coughs or sneezes near you or if you touch a surface that has been contaminated. You are most often at risk in highly populated areas, such as in crowded living conditions and in schools.
Symptoms usually start one to four days after being infected by the flu virus and you can spread it to others before symptoms start and up to three or four days after they appear. Symptoms start very quickly and may include headache, chills, dry cough, body aches, fever, stuffy nose and sore throat.
This year, the vaccine will protect against three influenza viruses that research indicates will be most common during the upcoming season. The 2010-11 flu vaccine will protect against 2009 H1N1 strain and two other influenza viruses — an H3N2 virus and an influenza B virus.
Sometimes, an unpredictable new strain may appear after the vaccine has been made and distributed. Because of this, even if you do get the flu vaccine, it is possible that you may still get infected with that strain, but if you do get the flu, symptoms are usually milder because the vaccine still provides some protection.
It is important to get vaccinated six to eight weeks before flu season begins to prevent infection or to reduce the severity of flu if you do get it. Your immune system takes two weeks to respond to the flu vaccine and build protection against flu viruses. The vaccine itself cannot cause the flu — it is an inactivated vaccine that contains a dead virus that helps your body build immunity — but it is possible for you to become exposed to the virus and get infected soon after you are vaccinated and before you body has built up immunity to the flu.
The CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following groups get vaccinated:
• Children younger than 5 and especially those younger than 2 years
• People who are 50 or older
• People of any age who have chronic medical illnesses such as diabetes or heart, lung or kidney disease
• People who have improperly functioning immune systems
• Pregnant women
• People who live in a nursing home or other chronic-care housing facility
• Health-care workers
• Children and teenagers
If you have not already done so, schedule your flu shot with your doctor’s office, at a local pharmacy or the health department.

Ratcliffe is a consultant to the Coastal Health District. You can call her at 876-6399.
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