Early Flu Season Hits Hard

Early Flu Season Hits Hard (ABC News)

The flu is back and with a vengeance.

Hitting the U.S. unusually early and hard this year, the flu season has officially arrived and it won't be departing any time soon. If you're at all like me, you have a healthy appreciation for the often underestimated and crippling powers of the flu and you take every precaution to avoid it. If not, it's never too soon to get prepared and not too late to get vaccinated against one of the most notorious and common winter maladies.

If you're young and healthy, the flu may just make you feel lousy for a week or two, miss some work, and spread the infection to some of your favorite people. If you're elderly, have medical problems, are pregnant, or are a young child, you may not be so lucky. More than 200,000 people are hospitalized due to influenza each year, according to the the U.S. Centers for Disease Control And depending on the year, between 3,000 and 49,000 people die.

The best way to prevent the flu is to get vaccinated.

You may have heard about a new study on flu vaccines. It found that the flu vaccine doesn't work as well as we thought or would like. However it still offers considerable protection. In adults ages 18-65 the benefits of the flu shot vary year by year, but on average the vaccine is 59 percent protective. For children the story is better. For those younger than seven the nasal spray vaccine is 83 percent protective.

Unfortunately, the vaccine works least well in the elderly, the group at greatest risk of severe infection. They should still get vaccinated, but remember that when they do, it helps to keep them safe too. Clearly, we need better vaccines, but it's still a really good idea to get vaccinated. There is also good news for kids - the nasal spray vaccine works great and there is no needle!

There are a couple of myths to bust:

1. Can the flu shot give me the flu? No. You may have a sore arm or a little fever but the shot does not contain a live virus and cannot give you the flu.

2. If I got the flu shot last year, do I need it this year? Yes! It isn't clear how long protection lasts and most years the vaccine protects against different strains of flu than the year before.

CLICK HERE to See 12 Flu Myths Debunked.

How do you know if you have the flu or just a bad cold? Flu symptoms usually come on suddenly and frequently and include high fever, headache, fatigue, cough, sore throat, and body aches. Some people, particularly children, may have diarrhea and vomiting. If you have these symptoms, do not come to work. The last thing you really want to do is infect others.

Finally, here is some advice for what to do if you get the flu.

• If you have underlying medical problems, call your doctor early in the illness to see if they want to prescribe an antiviral drug. • Stay home until your fever has been gone for at least 24 hours. That will cut down on the number of people to whom you might give it. • Cover your coughs and sneezes. • Keep your hands clean - use soap and water or hand sanitizer frequently, especially after coughing or sneezing. • Drink plenty of liquids!

My biggest advice to you is this: The best approach to the flu is to not get it and not share it. Get vaccinated. Stay home if you're sick.

For more information on the flu visit http://www.cdc.gov/flu