With the arrival of fall, thousands of Americans will find themselves battling flu symptoms. Coughing, sneezing, fever, aches and chills all are classic symptoms of influenza - a highly contagious respiratory illness with potentially dangerous complications.
"The flu can knock a person out of school or work for weeks, especially when it's circulating through every member of a family," says Dr. Scott Lieberman of Williamson Primary Care in Franklin. "It's much more significant than a cold and can cause serious health complications."
The best and simplest way to prevent the flu, he says, is by getting vaccinated.
"I tell all my patients to get vaccinated to prevent weeks of illness at home," Lieberman says.
Countdown to flu season
While flu season peaks in January, the virus typically appears in early October and can linger through May. Lieberman says now is the best time to get vaccinated against the potentially dangerous virus.
"Because two weeks are needed for antibodies from the vaccine to develop, it's important that people receive the flu shot several weeks before the virus really starts spreading," Lieberman says.
Since the flu hits hard and fast, patients can begin spreading the virus before they even know they're sick. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most healthy adults may be able to infect others beginning one day before symptoms develop and up to seven days after symptoms appear. Some people, especially young children and those with weakened immune systems, might be able to infect others for an even longer period.
That's why the CDC recommends everyone six months and older get a flu vaccine, available at doctor's offices, clinics, health departments, pharmacies and health centers. The vaccine is available as a nasal spray or injection and is covered by many insurance plans.
A yearly need
Unlike childhood vaccinations, given every few years, the flu shot is needed each year because common strains are constantly evolving. This year, vaccination manufacturers are ramping up production in anticipation of a busy season.
"The flu season is expected to be as bad if not worse than last year, because milder weather allows for more viruses to replicate," Lieberman says.
Avoid germs to avoid the flu
Adults and children alike also can help prevent the spread of flu through good hygiene.
"Washing your hands is the best way to prevent influenza from spreading," Lieberman says. "Teaching kids the correct way to wash their hands can keep germs from being brought home to younger children and elderly grandparents, who are more susceptible to chronic flu-related illness."