Fall marks the beginning of flu season in Washington, D.C., a highly contagious time of year that can be fueled by kids’ school activities, Thanksgiving feasts, crowded shopping malls, holiday family gatherings and New Year celebrations — all hotbeds for the spreading of germs. That’s not to say anyone should avoid these wonderful activities, but knowing the basics about this infectious disease and how it is spread can be key to protecting yourself and your family.
Because the flu is all around us, everyday prevention is important. Try to get into the habit of washing your hands regularly and avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. You should especially be careful when coming into unavoidable contact with sick people, and if you do get the flu, early treatment can make a positive difference.
The flu spreads easily and quickly, but here are some answers to common flu questions that can empower you to stay healthy:
How is the flu spread? People with the flu can spread it to others up to about six feet away. The virus is spread mainly by droplets made when people cough, sneeze or talk.
Why should I get a flu shot? The flu vaccine is the best way to prevent getting the flu. It helps prevent flu related complications that can turn deadly and it helps protect vulnerable people around you whose life may be at risk if they catch the flu, including babies who are too young to get the vaccine, young children, older adults and people with chronic health conditions like diabetes, COPD and heart disease. In fact, the CDC recommends getting vaccinated even if you’ve already had the flu, because it’s possible you’ll catch and spread a different form of the virus later in the season.
When should I get the flu shot? The best time to get the flu shot is early in the season, such as before the end of October. The flu shot is available now. If you don’t have a regular doctor or nurse, you can typically get a flu vaccine at a health department, pharmacy, urgent care clinic or at your school/work.
Should everyone get the flu shot? According to the CDC, if you are over six months, it is recommended you get the annual flu vaccine, with rare exceptions. If you have life-threatening allergies to the vaccine or any ingredients in it, you cannot get the flu vaccine. If you are not feeling well, please consult a physician before getting the vaccine.
Once I get the flu shot, am I immediately safe? You are still vulnerable to catching the flu immediately after getting the flu vaccine, so it is important to exercise precaution. It takes about two weeks after the vaccination for antibodies that protect against the flu to develop in the body, so it is important to get vaccinated early to give your body time to build immunity. Children who need two doses of vaccine to be protected should start the vaccination process sooner because the two doses must be given at least four weeks apart.
Is it just a cold or do I have the flu? The flu is typically more severe and comes on faster than a cold. People who get the flu suffer from symptoms including fever, chills, cough, sore throat, congestion, muscle aches, headaches and fatigue. A cold is a milder respiratory illness than the flu. While cold symptoms can make you feel bad for a few days, flu symptoms can make you feel miserable for a multiple days and weeks.
What do I do if I catch the flu? Stay at home, rest, limit contact with people, cover your mouth when you cough and wash your hands often. You may want to consider wearing a mask around anyone you live with while you are sick. Your fever should be gone for at least 24 hours, before easing back into your routine. You should be able to keep your fever under control with an over-the-counter fever reducer. For children who are too young for cold medications, consider using a nasal bulb, saline spray or even taking them into a bathroom with a steamy shower to clear mucus.
When are people with the flu contagious? Most adults are contagious 24-48 hours before symptoms start and up to five to seven days after becoming sick. Children may pass the virus for longer than seven days.
When should I go to the doctor? If you are in a high-risk group for flu complications or are experiencing severe symptoms, you should visit your physician immediately. People with high risk from the flu include older adults (65 and up), children, pregnant women and people with serious health conditions such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease. Emergency warning signs include difficulty breathing, pain in the chest, sudden dizziness, vomiting, excessive fever and confusion.
Are there medicines for the flu? Flu antiviral drugs can be prescribed by doctors, who usually recommend them if you are showing severe symptoms or have a high risk of complications. These drugs can lessen symptoms and shorten the time you’re sick by one or two days.
Lewis is the medical director at Amerigroup D.C.