by Gerald F. Joseph, Jr, MD
Each year, 20 percent of people in the US come down with the flu experiencing symptoms such as sore throat, fever, headache, muscle aches and soreness, congestion, and cough. Diarrhea and vomiting may also occur and are especially associated with the 2009 H1N1 influenza strain (“swine flu”).
Although most sufferers will fully recover, the flu can cause serious illness or even death. The best way to combat the flu and its symptoms is to avoid it altogether. Fortunately, simple steps can help reduce your chances of getting sick.
Get vaccinated. Vaccines for both the seasonal and swine flu are available as a shot and an inhaled mist. Because pregnant women have a higher risk of severe complications related to seasonal flu and are six times more likely to die from H1N1 than the general population, American College of Obstetricians & Gynecologists recommends that they receive both vaccines. Flu vaccination is safe for pregnant women and their fetuses and continues to provide newborns with some protection from the flu after delivery. Pregnant women should only be vaccinated with the flu shot, not the inhaled mist.
H1N1 vaccination is also strongly recommended for persons between the ages of six months and 24 years; those who live with or care for children younger than six months of age; and people between 25 and 64 years of age with compromised immune systems and chronic illnesses such as diabetes, asthma, or heart disease. Seasonal flu vaccination is recommended for any individual who wishes to avoid the flu and for high-risk populations including those older than 50; people of any age who have a chronic illness, and their caregivers; and household members and caregivers of children younger than five.
Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after coughing or sneezing. Be sure to lather for at least 20-30 seconds (about the time it takes to hum the ‘Happy Birthday’ song twice). You can also use alcohol-based hand cleansing gels if water is not available.
Use a tissue to cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze, and then throw it away. If you don’t have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your elbow or shoulder, not your hands.
Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
Stay home when you’re sick, and keep sick children home, too. Sick individuals should stay out of public places such as school and work until they have been free of a fever for at least 24 hours. Pregnant women are encouraged to plan for someone else to care for sick family members.
And remember to practice good-for-you habits-such as eating a healthy diet, drinking plenty of fluids, exercising, and getting enough sleep-to keep your body in tip-top, virus-fighting condition.