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Flu protection can take minutes; 5 ways to prevent it

Flu season 2012-2013, flu vaccine, CDC

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reported that this year’s flu season has begun earlier and will probably be worse than expected. They are urging Americans to take precautions, especially by protecting yourself with a flu shot.

This week, December 2 through the 8th, is designated as “National Influenza Vaccination Week” and the CDC says that even though we are into the last month of the year, “It’s not too late to vaccinate.” There have been confirmed cases of flu in 48 states plus the territory of Puerto Rico. There are also increasing number of influenza-like illnesses reported over last season.

The level of flu activity we are seeing now doesn’t usually begin until January, says Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC. This is the earliest start to the flu season since 2003-2004, he adds.

"Increasing flu activity should be a wake-up call. For anyone who has put off vaccination: It's time to get your flu vaccine now," said Dr. Melinda Wharton, Acting Director of CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

Currently, the regions in the south central and southeast US, including Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana, are worst affected by the flu, likely due to climate. However, activity is expected to rise in other areas in the next few weeks. Milwaukee, Wisconsin has reported 26 hospitalizations and four flu-related deaths so far this season.

“Flu season typically peaks in February and can last as late as May,” says Dr. Anne Schuchat, Assistant Surgeon General of the U.S. Public Health Service and Director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

The flu vaccine is the best tool we have to protect ourselves against the flu. Each year, the vaccine is formulated using predictions about the types of flu strains most likely to affect the population. This year, the strains that are making people sick are influenza A (both H3N2 and H1N1) and influenza B. “While it’s (still) early in the season,” says Dr. Wharton, “it's encouraging to see a well-matched vaccine so far.”

Unfortunately, the CDC notes that only 37% of the population aged 6 months and older has been vaccinated so far this year.

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Protect yourself and those you love by getting the flu shot ASAP. Each year, 200,000 people are hospitalized in the US from flu complications. Those at greater risk for flu-related complications are children younger than 5 years old, but especially children younger than 2 years old, pregnant women, people with certain medical conditions like asthma, diabetes, or heart and lung disease and people 65 years and older.

The vaccine is available in many forms: the regular flu shot, the new intradermal flu shot, and a high-dose shot. It is also available in a nasal spray for certain people (those 2 to 49 years who are healthy and not pregnant).

In addition to the flu shot, the CDC recommends the following advice:

• Stay away from sick people. This isn’t always easy to do, but you must avoid close contact with anyone who is sick, including friends and co-workers. Stay home yourself when you are ill and remember to keep your child home if he or she is displaying flu-like symptoms to protect those in the school environment (teachers, other students, etc.)

• Wash your hands often. Washing regularly throughout the day will protect you from germs that can spread. Be sure to use soap and warm water, and scrub for as long as it takes to sing Happy Birthday.

• Keep anti-bacterial wipes nearby. If soap and water are not available, clean your hands regularly with alcohol-based hand rub or wipes. You should also use these to disinfect things like doorknobs, your phone and countertops.

• Don’t touch your eyes, nose or mouth. This is one of the fastest ways to contaminate yourself with germs.

• Maintain healthy habits. Keep your body and your immune system strong. Get plenty of sleep, be physically active, manage your stress, drink plenty of fluids, and eat nutritious food.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention