It's that time of year again: the start of the flu season. The annual flu season begins in October and can continue until May. Every year, between 5 percent and 20 percent of the U.S. population gets the flu. That means at least 15 million Americans (and as many as 60 million) get sick from the flu every year. Seasonal flu results in more than 200,000 hospitalizations and about 36,000 deaths annually.
So, what can you do to protect yourself and your family from seasonal flu? The most important thing, by far, is to get a flu shot. October and November are the best months to get a flu shot, but getting vaccinated later in the flu season still helps. The flu is still circulating in January and February, and sometimes even as late as May. The seasonal flu shot won't protect you from H5N1, the type of avian influenza that has killed birds and people in countries such as Indonesia and Thailand, but it can protect you from regular flu.
We've encountered some problems in recent years with vaccine supplies that have made it difficult for everyone who wanted a flu shot to get one. This year, however, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that more than 100 million doese of the flu caccine will be available, which is more then ever before. There may be a few bumps in the year ahead, but don't let this keep you from getting vaccinated. There should be enough doses of vaccine available for all of those who want one, even if it takes a few extra weeks.
CDC also recommends that certain people, such as very young children, the elderly and people living with illnesses that affect the immune system get vaccinated against the flu. For a complete list of those who are most at risk, visit www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/keyfacts.htm.
Sometimes people are afraid to get a flu shot because they're afraid it will make them sick with the flu, but that's not true. The flu shot that many of us get every year contains dead influenza virus, which experts call "inactive virus." You can't get sick from it because the virus is no longer alive. This vaccine, given with a needle, is approved for people older than 6 months of age. If you are allergic to eggs, contact your health care provider, as the flu vaccine will have to be administered differently, if at all.
Beyond the shot, there is a newer flu vaccine introduced in recent years that is given via a nasal spray. However, it is not recommended for everyone since it contains live (but weakened) flu virus. Only healthy people between 5 and 49 years of age who are not pregnant are approved to use it. The nasal spray flu vaccine is a great alternative for those of us who are afraid of needles, especially healthy, school-aged children.
Whichever type of flu vaccination you choose, it's the best thing you can do to head off the flu.