Q: How can I avoid getting the flu this year?

A: Influenza, commonly referred to as the flu, is a very contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. It can produce mild to severe illness. Adults 65 and older, young children and people with certain health conditions are at greater risk of serious flu complications.

Flu season usually starts in October and runs through March. The sooner you get vaccinated, the more protected you will be. Everyone 6 months of age and older should get vaccinated every year.

Getting a flu vaccination

During the 2017-2018 flu season, 19,689 people were treated in our emergency department for significant flu-related health issues. Some were so sick that we admitted them to the hospital. Of those, 70 percent had not gotten the flu shot and many were young, in their 20s and 30s.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • 172 children died in the U.S. during the 2017-2018 flu season due to complications of the flu.
  • The 2017-2018 season was the first season to be classified as a high-severity season across all age groups
  • Influenza kills at least 12,000 people annually and can send more than 700,000 people to the hospital, but last year was especially bad, with 80,000 deaths.

It is vital to get the flu shot every year because flu strains change. It takes most people about two weeks to build up immunity after being vaccinated.

Some people think they will get the flu from the shot. But there is no live virus in the injectable vaccine.

Why get vaccinated?

A vaccinated person is less likely to become infected with and transmit the flu virus. Getting vaccinated also means those who do still get the flu will experience less severe symptoms that don't last as long.

Ways to avoid the flu and stop its spread

  • In addition to vaccination, washing your hands often is one of the best ways to prevent getting and/or spreading the flu. Use soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitizers. You should also disinfect surfaces at work and at home.
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes.
  • Avoid others if you have flu-like symptoms. Rest at home until you haven't had a fever for 24 hours. Keep your kids out of school if they aren't feeling well.  This will help prevent spreading the flu to others.

Recognizing the signs of flu

Symptoms of the flu include having a fever of 100 degrees or more with one or more of the following:

  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting and diarrhea

If you are experiencing flu-like symptoms that are not life-threatening, consult with your primary-care or urgent-care provider; for more serious symptoms, seeking emergency care right away.

Michael Heck, RN, is a certified infection prevention specialist at AtlantiCare, which has locations in five counties in southern New Jersey.