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Healthy Aging > cold & flu

10 Things You Need to Know About the Flu This Winter

By Sheryl Kraft

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It's happening: The temps are dropping, the windows and doors are staying shut and the days are about to get shorter.

It's the perfect storm for viruses to hitch a ride and invade.

And if your immune system isn't stellar, it gives those bugs an open invitation to come and linger for a while. One of the most popular (and annoying) bugs? The flu. It likes to hitch a ride on the droplets expelled when infected people cough, sneeze or talk (from up to six feet away!), and it will sometimes linger (for as much as 17 days!) on surfaces like doorknobs and even paper money.

Also known as influenza, this highly contagious viral respiratory illness is microscopic and infectious and can make you plenty sick, and can even be fatal, particularly in the very young, the very old or people with compromised immune systems.

The flu is more than just the common cold: although it often has the cough, sore throat and stuffy nose associated with colds, it also can bring fever (but not always), headache, cold sweats and an achy, exhausted body—and sometimes diarrhea and vomiting. And it lasts a long time—usually a week to two weeks.

So, it pays to know some flu facts.

  1. The virus can be spread one day before you even know you're sick—and up to seven days after the symptoms begin.
  2. Flu season in the United States can start as early as October. But it usually doesn't get into gear until around December, reaching its peak in February and usually ending around March—but it can last until May. (In the Southern hemisphere, the flu season occurs between June and September, which is their winter season.)
  3. It's recommended to get your vaccine by the end of October.
  4. The flu virus thrives in cold, dry weather. In warmer climates, flu infection rates are associated with high humidity and rain, according to a study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.
  5. The influenza vaccine can reduce your chances of contracting the flu by 50 percent to 60 percent, and if you do get sick, it can decrease the severity of your symptoms. The quadrivalent vaccine protects against four viruses and may be more advantageous than the trivalent shot (which protects against three). A jet injector is a delivery method that is less painful, given directly into the skin rather than into the muscle.
  6. A nasal spray vaccine is once again available for use in anyone age 2 through 49 years. However, it should not be used in people with certain underlying medical conditions, such as pregnant women; people with a weakened immune system; and people with diabetes, heart disease or kidney liver disorders. Ask your health care professional what is best for you.
  7. Some children between six months and eight years of age might need two doses of the vaccine for the best protection, spaced 28 days apart. Because  children younger than six months old can suffer higher risks of flu complications but are too young to get vaccinated, it's important to keep them away from infected people whenever possible.
  8. If you're allergic to eggs, the recommendations have been updated. Click here for the latest.
  9. There are antiviral drugs that can treat the flu in both children and adults. These are different than antibiotics and can shorten the severity and time of the illness, in addition to helping prevent more serious complications. They're most effective if started within two days of the onset of the flu.
  10. To stay flu-free, take these precautions: Wash thoroughly—and often—with soap and water; if it's not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub. Do not share eating utensils or dishes with people who are sick without washing in hot water and soap (but these don't need to be cleaned separately, if placed in a dishwasher). Be sure to disinfect any surfaces that have been touched, like phones, computers, remote controls and even light switches. Carry your own pen to avoid using one that may have been used communally (like at the bank), and wipe down the handle of the supermarket cart or the surface of the pull-out airline food tray before you use it.