Seasonal influenza (flu), like other diseases, affects people in different ways. For some it can mean a few days home from school or work while for others it can become much more serious. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), on average 5% to 20% of the U.S. population gets the flu each year resulting in about 200,000 hospitalizations and anywhere between 3,000 to 49,000 flu-related deaths.
The CDC recommends an annual flu vaccine as the first and best way to protect against influenza. Each season, people should get the flu vaccine as soon as it's available and they can continue to get the vaccine into January and beyond. The flu season is unpredictable, but it often occurs from October to May and usually peaks in January or February.
Is My Family at Risk?
During a "typical" flu season, the majority of deaths resulting from seasonal flu occur in the elderly. However, the highest rates of infection and hospitalization are among young children. Each year in the U.S., more than 20,000 children under the age of five are hospitalized and nearly 100 children under the age of five die as a result of the flu. Even healthy children and adults can get the flu and it can be serious. Also, keep in mind that healthy people can spread the flu to those individuals with weaker immune systems and it can result in serious illness. It's important to protect your family and those around you from getting sick.
People 2 through 64 years of age with certain chronic conditions or a weakened immune system are at higher risk for developing pneumococcal disease after a flu infection. You can learn more about this disease and the vaccines to protect against the illness on the CDC's website.
What Are the Symptoms?
Common symptoms of the flu include fever, headache and/or body aches, fatigue, coughing and/or sore throat, and runny or stuffy nose, and chills. Many people confuse the flu with the common cold, which are both respiratory illnesses but are caused by different viruses. In general, colds are milder. Symptoms such as fever, body aches, extreme tiredness and dry cough are more common and intense with the flu, and the flu can result in serious health problems, hospitalizations and even death.
For an easy-to-read chart on cold vs. seasonal flu symptoms, click here.
What Can I Do to Protect My Family?
The flu vaccine is the best way to protect your family against the disease. The medical community recommends that everyone over 6 months of age receive the flu vaccine. Since the flu vaccine is not approved for use in infants younger than 6 months old, the best way to protect these children is to make certain that their household contacts and caregivers are vaccinated.
Immunization is especially important for people at high risk of serious flu complications including children less than 5 years of age, pregnant women, people 65 years of age and older, people with chronic health conditions, people who live in nursing homes/long-term care facilities, and people who live with or care for those at high risk for complications from flu.
Influenza can cause serious harm to pregnant women and their babies. To protect them both, pregnant women in all trimesters and women who are breastfeeding should make certain to talk to their doctor about receiving the flu vaccine.
If any of your family members is diagnosed with the flu, the CDC recommends that they stay home for at least 24 hours after their fever (100F or 37.8C) is gone (without the use of a fever-reducing medicine, such as Tylenol®).
A new seasonal flu vaccine is created and distributed every year. While there are many different flu viruses, the flu vaccine protects against the three viruses that research suggests will be the most common that season. The 2012-2013 flu vaccine will not protect against the H3N2v flu, which is associated with exposure to swine and has affected some people in the U.S. To learn more about H3N2v and how you can protect your family, visit flu.gov.
There are two different kinds of influenza vaccines your family may be able to receive- the flu shot and the nasal spray. Both are effective against the flu. Talk to your doctor about which is better for you and your family. It's important to note that children 6 months through 8 years of age need 2 doses of flu vaccine if it's their first season of being vaccinated. Although a common belief, the flu vaccine cannot give you the flu. For more facts vs. fiction, visit Families Fighting Flu.
In addition to the flu vaccine, doctors recommend that you and your children wash your hands frequently, avoid touching your eyes, noses or mouths and try to avoid close contact with sick people. However, if someone in your family does get the flu, you may want to talk to your doctor about prescription antiviral drugs, which can make the illness milder and prevent serious complications. Antiviral medications work best when started within the first two days of getting sick.