This year’s flu season has already led to as many as 2,400 deaths — including six children — between Oct. 1 and Nov. 30, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In that same time period, the virus has sent 1.2 million people to their doctors and landed up to 29,000 people in the hospital. While the virus is infecting people across the country, it’s considered widespread in 16 states (Alabama, California, Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia), according to the CDC.
What causes the flu?
The flu is a contagious respiratory infection caused by the influenza virus.
An infected person can spread the disease to others from up to six feet away, according to the CDC. “Most experts think that flu viruses spread mainly by droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk,” according to the CDC. “These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.”
It’s also possible to become infected by touching an object with the flu virus on it and then touching your mouth, nose or eyes, which are entry points for the virus.
Flu vs. cold symptoms
“People often confuse a cold with flu or influenza because they share some of the same symptoms and occur at the same time of year, but the two diseases are very different,” Eric A. Weiss, an emergency medicine physician with Stanford Health Care, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.
Colds tend to come on gradually, while the flu seems to strike quickly and out of the blue. “Anyone who has a sore throat on Monday, stuffy nose and sneezing on Tuesday, and cough or low-grade fever on Wednesday and doesn’t need to lay in bed likely has a cold,” says Weiss. “Compare that to the flu, which tends to come on abruptly — often people will tell you, ‘I felt fine at 3 p.m. and at 4 p.m. I had to go to bed.”
Symptoms of the flu usually include chills, fever, severe muscle aches, a headache behind the eyes, and feeling like you need to lie down. In some cases, people also experience a sore throat or coughing. Children may also have vomiting or diarrhea.
Since symptoms don’t typically start until the second day of being infected, it’s possible for people to pass on the flu one day before getting symptoms. People are typically the most contagious three or four days after they first get sick.
Most people recover from the flu within two weeks or less, but certain groups are at a higher risk of serious flu complications, which can lead to pneumonia and even death. These vulnerable groups include young children (particularly those younger than 5 years old); pregnant women; people with certain chronic health conditions, such as asthma, diabetes or heart and lung disease; and people over the age of 65, according to Weiss.
How to protect yourself from the flu
The best way to protect yourself from the flu is to get vaccinated. Everyone six months of age and older, who does not have contraindications, should get one, according to the CDC’s 2019-2020 flu season recommendations. The vaccines reduce the risk of having to go to the doctor with the flu by 40 percent to 60 percent, according to the CDC.
“Even if you do get influenza [after being vaccinated], it will often lessen the symptoms, reduce your chances of complications, and decrease the time that you are sick and spreading the virus to your family members,” says Weiss.
Although the CDC recommends getting a flu vaccine by the end of October, flu season often peaks between December and February so it’s not too late to get one. The CDC states that “vaccination should continue throughout flu season, even in January or later.”
It helps to stay away from people who are sick, which Weiss says is easier said than done. He also recommends washing your hands often — especially after shaking hands with people or coming into contact with others who are sick — and try to avoid touching your mouth, nose, or eyes to prevent introducing the virus to your body.
But, as Weiss points out, “all the other things you can do to mitigate or prevent influenza are not going to be as effective” as the vaccine. “It’s not too late,” he adds.
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