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Getting Ready For Flu Season

We may not be able to prevent the cold and storms of winter from happening, but we can take steps to protect ourselves and others from one of winter's worst 'side effects' - influenza, or the flu.

Toronto, October 30, 2007

The flu is an infection in the airways of the nose and throat. It is caused by one of the influenza viruses. There are many viruses that are in the air around us, passing from person to person. This is even more of a problem when we're all indoors during the colder months. Some of these viruses cause a simple cold. Others cause the flu.

The flu is miserable to have. If you have influenza, usually you will have a high fever that lasts for 3-4 days, a headache and muscle aches, extreme fatigue that may last 2-3 weeks, and a bad cough.

But it is the complications from the flu that can be severe, even deadly for some people. These complications can include bronchitis, pneumonia, kidney failure or heart failure.

The best prevention is an annual flu shot. A good diet, vitamins and physical activity all add to your general health; however, they won't protect you completely from the influenza virus. The vaccine is very effective in preventing influenza.

In the elderly, the vaccine may be less effective in preventing infection. However, getting the flu shot helps to reduce the risk of serious side effects, having to go to the hospital, and death.

A flu shot is needed in the fall each year because the influenza viruses are constantly changing. Also, the protection given by the flu shot lasts only through one influenza season. The flu shot you had last year may not provide the protection you need this year.

It is best to get your flu shot before flu season, which usually goes from December through April. But vaccinations in January and February can still provide protection.

The flu shot takes about 2 weeks from the time the shot is given to provide full protection. The flu shot can help anyone over the age of 6 months.

Getting yourself vaccinated also helps to protect those around you. This is especially important if you live or work with people who have chronic diseases. They include asthma, diabetes, heart disease or other conditions that weaken their immune systems. Immunization programs sponsored by provincial/territorial governments usually focus on people who have chronic conditions. They also focus on seniors who are at risk of serious problems from the flu.

Flu shots do not give you the flu. You cannot get the flu from the vaccine. This is because the viruses used to make the vaccine have been killed.

People who think they caught the flu after receiving their shot are confusing their symptoms with those of a cold, or another virus. They could also have caught another strain of influenza not included in the vaccine.

In addition to getting a flu shot, you should wash your hands often with hot water and soap. This reduces the spread of influenza viruses. Viruses can live for days on the surface of toys, coffee makers, doorknobs, computer keyboards, and other hard surfaces.

The influenza virus also spreads quickly from person to person through droplets in the air. These droplets come from our noses and mouths when we cough or sneeze, so cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze.

And if you do get the flu, rest and drink plenty of fluids. The aches and fever can be treated with acetaminophen (TylenolTM, TempraTM). Children should not be given ASA (AspirinTM) because of the risk of Reye's syndrome.

If your symptoms do not improve, see your doctor; you may be suffering from serious side effects of the flu. Antibiotics have no effect against a viral illness like the flu.

There are drugs prescribed by doctors, which are called antivirals. These can be effective in reducing the symptoms of the flu. But you must take them within 48 hours of getting the flu symptoms. You will need to go to a doctor to see if you do have the flu and to get a prescription.