THURSDAY, Jan. 10 (HealthDay News) -- With the United States in
the throes of one of the worst flu outbreaks in years, health-care
experts say there are ways you can fight back and protect yourself
from the virus.
And the best protection is a flu shot -- even now.
"People should ideally get the flu shot at the beginning of the flu season which really starts in October," said Dr. Robert Graham, an internist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. "So the sooner the better. But at the same time, whenever you can get the shot I strongly recommend it. It's the least painful way of combating the flu."
The good news is that this year's vaccine is an excellent match
for the strains of influenza now circulating.
The not-so-great news is that the vaccine takes about two weeks
to become fully effective in your body. And even people who have
been vaccinated can contract the flu virus, though this is
The predominant strain so far this year is H3N2, and doctors
note that when H3N2 dominates, they tend to see more severe illness
among children and the elderly.
For those who haven't yet had a flu shot -- and even for those
who have -- there are other simple precautions people can and
should take to minimize the chances of contracting what's turning
out to be an especially infectious and unpleasant illness.
First and foremost is to wash your hands, said nurse Kristen
Lawton, director of the emergency department at Northern
Westchester Hospital in Mount Kisco, N.Y.
"If you can't use soap and water, use the hand soap in a pump or the alcohol-based preparation," she said.
Lawton said her emergency room has been seeing about 15 more
patients a day with flu-related illness since Christmas, compared
to before the holidays.
The next best advice is to avoid touching your face with your
hands. "I tell my kids to keep their hands away from the holes in
their head," she said. "Don't be touching your eyes, nose or mouth
because there are germs on your hands."
Seemingly safe surfaces like kitchen counters, desks,
refrigerator door handles and computer keyboards may also harbor
the flu virus for hours -- sometimes as long as 48 hours, according
to the Mayo Clinic. Make sure these are kept clean, Lawton
If you have to cough or sneeze, do so into a tissue or into the
crook of your elbow -- not into the air where droplets can easily
infect people near you.
Droplets from a vigorous cough can travel at 60 mph, Graham
If you do start to feel sick, stay home. An adult is contagious
one day before symptoms and between five and seven days after
becoming sick, Lawton said. Children may pass the virus for longer
than seven days, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control
The drug Tamiflu can shorten the course of the illness, Lawton
said. And it may prevent it in some people, according to the U.S.
Food and Drug Administration.
Other than that, your best bet is to rest, drink lots of fluids
and take an over-the-counter pain reliever, Lawton added.
People at particular risk for the flu and its complications are
pregnant women, those 65 and older and anyone with a chronic
illness. The CDC urges these people to get a flu shot, which is
available as an injection or nasal spray and in a stronger dose for
Forty-one states are reporting widespread flu activity. There
have been 18 flu-related deaths of children so far and about 2,300
people have been hospitalized since Oct. 1, according to the
The epidemic is so bad in Boston, where four flu-related deaths
have been reported, that Mayor Thomas Menino declared a state of
emergency on Wednesday. The city has already recorded 700 confirmed
cases of flu, compared with 70 cases for all of last year,
To learn more about the flu, visit the
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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