Flu season runs from October to May, with most cases happening from late December to early March. and the flu vaccine is usually offered from September until mid-November. Getting vaccinated before the flu season begins in full force gives the body a chance to build up immunity and protection from the virus. Even though it’s best to get vaccinated as soon as the flu vaccine is available, getting the vaccine later can still be helpful. Even as late as January, there are still a few months left in the flu season, so it’s still a good idea to get protected.
Everyone can catch the flu. Even healthy people can become very ill from the flu virus and experience serious complications. But even if you’re one of the lucky ones who bounces back quickly from a bout with the flu, your family and friends might not be so lucky.
Children and adults over age 65 are at a higher risk for severe cases or complications from the flu. Those with current or ongoing health conditions, such as asthma, diabetes, heart or lung disease, or autoimmune disorders are also at a higher risk as well.
The flu vaccine is recommended for everyone age 6 months and older. It’s especially important for people who are at a greater risk of developing health problems from the flu to get vaccinated. These high risk people include:
- All children 6 months through 4 years old (babies younger than 6 months are also considered high risk, but they cannot receive the flu vaccine).
- Anyone 65 years and older.
- All women who are pregnant, are considering pregnancy, have recently given birth, or are breastfeeding during flu season.
- Anyone whose immune system is weakened from medications or illnesses (like HIV infection).
- Residents of long-term care facilities, such as nursing homes.
- Anyone (adults, teens, and kids) with a chronic medical condition, such as asthma.
- Aids or teens who take aspirin regularly and are at risk for developing Reye syndrome if they get the flu.
- Caregivers or household contacts of anyone in a high-risk groups.
The flu immunization is safe so it is okay to vaccinate for the winter flu. It has been successfully used for more than 50 years and it is also closely inspected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the Food and Drug Administration.
A common myth associated with the flu vaccine is that it can give you the flu. That’s simply not the case. While there are sometimes side effects from the flu shot, such as a low fever or aching, especially around the site of the shot, these side effects are rare. Some people also report a runny nose, sore throat, or a bit of congestion. These are side effects, and not the flu strain, and these affects usually wear off within a day or two.
Immunizations for flu are designed to protect you from catching the most common flu strains. Not only are they providing protection for you, but also for those that you come into contact with regularly. By having our community routinely vaccinate for the winter flu, at their local clinic or community health center, we can help to prevent the seasonal flu epidemic. This will also lower the number of serious complications and deaths that result from the flu each year.
Generally speaking, if you are vaccinated, you are less likely to get the flu. But that’s not the whole story. For most healthy people, it’s about considering the cost and a few seconds of pain against the possibility that you’ll need to take time off work and endure a few days of misery due to infection. For people who come into contact with vulnerable people – like the elderly, young or sick – getting vaccinated reduces the risk that you can pass it on. For vulnerable people, the flu can be the difference between being at home with a chronic disease and being in a hospital with complications such as bacterial pneumonia.
When you vaccinate for the winter flu, it is a bit like playing the lottery. If you are vaccinated too early, there’s the risk it doesn’t work when you most need it. If you vaccinate for the winter flu too late and you may get the flu while unprotected, or forget even having it before flu the season hits. Would you prevent a cold or flu if possible?
Unfortunately, there is no foolproof way to prevent the cold or flu, but you can arm yourself with a hydrated body and a healthy immune system from proper diet and exercise. These are two key factors in the prevention and treatment of cold and flu viruses. Flu vaccination, hand hygiene, and adequate sleep also are very important.
- Hydration – The outdoor air is drier in cold weather, and our heated homes are dry. Staying hydrated in the winter keeps mucous membranes soft and moist, preventing tiny cracks that allow viruses and bacteria to enter. Is eight glasses a day enough water to keep you hydrated? One simple rule of thumb is this: divide your weight (pounds) by two. That’s the minimum number of ounces your body needs. If you exercise, take your weight and multiply by 2/3 to get the number of ounces. Everyone’s specific fluid needs may differ.
- Plant-based foods – A diet rich in vegetables, fruit and whole grains that are high in antioxidants and phytonutrients will help keep your body in top shape. Antioxidants are known to reduce the risk of stroke and enhance immune defense, which lowers the risk of cancer and infection. Phytonutrients are linked to increased immunity and faster healing. Aim for seven servings of fruits and vegetables and at least three servings of whole grains per day. Nutrient-packed choices include broccoli, red onion, blueberries, grapes, oats, barley, and tea.
- Probiotics – Recent research shows probiotics (dietary supplement) boosts the immune system. Healthy bacteria found in probiotics keep the gut and intestinal tract low in disease-causing germs. Yogurt with live active cultures and kefir are good food sources of probiotics. Over-the-counter supplements also are available. Some studies were based on a 7-ounce serving of yogurt with live cultures.
- Exercise – Moderate physical activity is a powerful immunity booster. A 30 to 60-minute walk most days per week is considered moderate exercise. Too much or not enough exercise actually can weaken your immune system. Looking for additional types of activity? Try dancing, walking, stationary biking, indoor swimming or similar activities to move more in the winter months.
- Vitamins and Minerals – Many supplements claim to reduce colds and viruses, but few studies substantiate claims. A literature review on vitamin C supplementation found no difference in cold rates for those who took 200 mg daily and those who took none. One exception was people who exercised outside in the winter. They benefited from the vitamin C supplement and reduced risk of catching a cold by 50%. The best supplement option is a multivitamin/mineral once per day with 100% of the recommended daily values of vitamins A, B6, B12, C and D, and minerals chromium, copper, folic acid, selenium, calcium, and zinc.
- Hydration – Stay hydrated with plenty of warm, soothing liquids such as tea, cocoa, broths, soup and the like. Drink something every hour while awake if possible.
- Avoid Calorie Restriction – Don’t feel like you have to have low calorie or low-fat versions of foods and beverages. You need calories during times of illness and diet foods and beverages may not give you enough to fight an illness. Protein provides the building blocks for our immune system. Carbohydrates and fat are good sources of energy and calories. Try liquids, then advance to a bland diet when ill.
- Zinc – At the first sign of a cold, zinc may prevent or decrease the duration of a cold. It also may help when used soon after a possible virus exposure. Zinc lozenges release ions that prevent the virus from maturing and attaching to airways. Take it once or twice per day for only a week at a time. Long-term zinc supplementation may decrease immunity.
- Chicken Soup – One study found that eating chicken soup while sick decreased the duration and severity of cold and flu symptoms.
- Honey – Research has linked honey to treating cough as well as Dextromethorphan (DM) cough medication. The study used buckwheat honey because of its antioxidant content. Test the theory by adding a dollop of honey to hot tea while nursing an illness. Remember do not give honey to children under 12 months of age.
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