Every year, millions of Americans get sick with the flu. Some become so sick they must be hospitalized; in fact, tens of thousands of people die from the flu each year.
Fortunately, getting sick is not inevitable. Here are some tips for reducing your risk of getting the flu and how to prevent spreading it if you do.
Get Your Flu Shot Every Year
The most important way to prevent the flu is to get a flu shot. In the 2017-2018 flu season alone, the flu vaccine prevented an estimated 7.1 million influenza illnesses and 8,000 deaths.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyone ages 6 months and older get the vaccine. It’s particularly important for people at high risk of complications. People at higher risk include children younger than 5, adults 65 and older, pregnant women, residents of nursing homes, people with chronic illnesses such as asthma, lung disease and heart disease, and those with chronic immune-suppressing conditions such as diabetes and cancer.
Remember, you need a flu shot each year; last year’s vaccine won’t protect you. Studies show the vaccine reduces the risk of catching the flu by about 40 to 60 percent when the vaccine is a good match for the viruses that are circulating. Most experts say it’s too early to tell how effective this year’s vaccine is. But it’s not too late to get the flu shot, since the flu season lasts from October through May.
While some people believe the flu shot will give you the flu, this is simply not true, because the vaccine does not contain live virus. The most common side effects of the flu shot are soreness, redness, tenderness or swelling where the vaccine was administered. If you get the flu shot and feel sick, it is probably because you were already infected with a virus. And if you do get sick with the flu after being vaccinated, it’s likely to be a more mild case.
Practice Good Hygiene
Most flu transmission happens from person to person. People can get the flu by inhaling droplets that someone coughs or sneezes or by picking up viruses from contaminated surfaces.
Simple measures such as washing your hands regularly can help keep sickness at bay. Sneezing or coughing into your inner elbow—rather than your hand—also helps limit the spread of the flu virus.
What to Do if You Get the Flu
If you’re experiencing moderate to severe flu symptoms, talk to your doctor. He or she might prescribe an antiviral medication such as Tamiflu, particularly if you are very sick or at high risk of complications. Don’t wait to call the doctor—treatment with antivirals works best when begun within 48 hours of getting sick.
Whether you take medication or not, stay home and rest (except to seek medical care, if needed). Do your best to avoid contact with others to keep from spreading the flu. Don’t go to work or other public places where you can pass the flu to others.
According to the CDC, you need to stay home at least 24 hours after you have become fever-free without the aid of medicine.
If you can’t see your doctor promptly or the office is closed, you can visit an urgent care clinic to be treated for the flu.
If you think you have the flu, talk to your doctor. If you do not have a doctor, find one near you. UNC Health Care offers urgent care clinic locations across North Carolina. Download the UNC Health app to view urgent care wait times near you.