As the flu season hits hard, learn how to protect yourself

92_ayannaBy Ayanna Johnson, Health Policy Associate

After the first of the year, it seems like influenza (flu) season magically appeared, with a fierce intensity. Cases of flu are growing fast, and it is predicted that this season might be one of the worst in years. Hospitals and emergency departments are being inundated with cases; many people are quite sick and some have died. The flu is scary, but it’s not too late to get vaccinated against this year’s strain.

In New York alone, more than 19,000 cases of flu have been reported thus far; compare that to just 4,000 cases last year.  Boston has seen more than 700 cases and has declared a state of public health emergency. Twenty-nine states are reporting higher than average levels of influenza.  To find out where the flu is near you, check out Flunearyou.org, an interactive map that shows the number of cases people are reporting in your area.

The flu has caused dozens of deaths across the US; two have been children. Though the CDC only collects data on adult deaths at the end of flu season; some states have released early figures. On January 11, Minnesota, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania each reported over 20 deaths. As of January 5, 2013, CDC reported that “the proportion of deaths attributed to pneumonia and influenza is slightly above the epidemic threshold for the first time this season.”

Is it the cold or Flu?

One of the most common questions heard during the flu season is “How do I know if I have the flu or a cold?” That’s a great question that can be difficult to untangle. Colds typically are less severe and accompanied by a stuffy or runny nose. The flu is often characterized by a fever, cough and/or sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, headaches, body aches, chills, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and/or diarrhea (most common in children).

Check out this infographic from APHA to determine if what you have might be the flu or a cold. Of course, it is always best to consult your health care provider.

Get Vaccinated!

  • As of November 2012, 36.5% of all people eligible to receive the vaccine have done so. This is about the same rate as this time last year, but the flu this year is worse than in 2011.
  •  It’s not too late to get vaccinated against the flu and doing so is a great idea. The vaccine protects you and your family (and even those around you) from getting sick. For more information on what vaccines do check out this information from the CDC.
  •  This year’s flu vaccine protects against three flu strains: influenza A (H1N1) virus, an influenza A (H3N2) virus, and an influenza B virus. Preliminary research finds that the vaccine is also about 62% effective in preventing the flu. Flu vaccines typically range in effectiveness from 30-70 percent.
  • The vaccine is recommended for everyone over 6 months of age, especially if you live with someone who has a high risk of complications from the flu, which includes the following people:
    • Children and infants
    • Pregnant women (the flu shot is approved for pregnant women. Protects mom and baby!)
    • Seniors
    • People with disabilities
    • People with health conditions like asthma
    • Travelers and people living abroad
  • Your primary care provider can give you the flu vaccine and local pharmacies may have the flu vaccine to protect you during this flu season. Be sure to check with them first. You can also use the flu vaccine finder to find out where the flu vaccine is near you.

As flu season continues, keep yourself healthy by following the age-old tips of washing your hands often and covering your mouth when you sneeze (Don’t use your hands! The upper arm will do). The CDC recommends following public health advice about outbreaks and advice from your health care provider and avoiding contact with sick people. If you do get sick and are prescribed an antiviral drug for your flu symptoms, take the medicine as directed by your provider.

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