The flu, or influenza, is a contagious respiratory illness caused by a virus.  Symptoms can be mild or severe, and complications can be significant.  You can minimize your risk of contracting the flu by getting a flu shot.  It is not too late to get protected this winter, although it takes about two weeks for the vaccine to be most effective.  Often flu season does not reach its peak until February.

Protect yourself during flu seasonThe Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that individuals six months and older be vaccinated, unless they have an allergy to eggs.  Pregnant women should be vaccinated to protect themselves and their baby.  Newborns whose mothers received the shot during pregnancy are protected for several months after birth.  A common misconception about the flu shot is that it can cause the flu.  Because the virus has been inactivated, people do not get flu from the vaccine.

Young children, the elderly, and people having compromised immune systems are at greatest risk of suffering life threatening complications from the flu.  Complications can include secondary infections such as pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus infection, ear infection, and myocarditis (inflammation of the heart).  The CDC estimates that more than 300,000 people were hospitalized for flu related complications during the 2015-16 flu season.

Other steps you can take to protect yourself from the flu and other respiratory illnesses include avoiding individuals who appear to be suffering from symptoms.  Common flu symptoms include sore throat, chills, body aches, dry cough, runny nose, fatigue, and temperature over 100 degrees.  Wash hands often, and keep them away from your face.  Carry alcohol-based hand sanitizer for times when you are unable to wash.  Cover your nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing.  Disinfect surfaces that are frequently used including door knobs, countertops, keyboards, remote controls, and phones.  Wipe them down often when members of the household are ill.  Avoid sharing personal items with family members including drinking glasses, eating utensils, towels, and cell phones.  Support your immune system by eating healthy and getting enough rest.