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November 7, 2002

How to avoid the flu and what to do if you get it

As soon as the weather changes and the temperatures drop, flu season is not far behind. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention estimate that 35 million-50 million Americans will come down with the flu this season. Of those, more than 20,000 will die from the flu and its complications, according to CDC estimates.

The flu is an illness caused by the influenza virus, either type A or B. The virus tends to change a little bit from year to year, which is why annual re-vaccination is recommended.

Ted Delbridge, assistant professor of emergency medicine at Pitt’s School of Medicine and medical director at UPMC Presbyterian’s emergency department, said, “The best way to prevent getting the flu is by taking care of yourself year-round. Exercising, eating well, sleeping well, taking vitamins and washing your hands frequently are a few of the ways you can stay healthy and avoid the flu.”

However, the flu is easily transmitted through sneezing, coughing, shaking hands and kissing. It spreads quickly in enclosed spaces, such as classrooms, public transportation vehicles and offices.

The symptoms show up about 2-4 days after exposure; the person will be contagious for another 3-4 days after the symptoms appear.

Symptoms include: fever, head and body aches, exhaustion, sneezing, congestion, sore throat and cough.

A doctor should be consulted for more severe symptoms, including: high fever, chills, severe headache, persistent cough (more than a week) or a cough with colored sputum, chest pain or shortness of breath.

“The best time to get a flu shot is in October or November, but the flu season is at its worst between January and March, so vaccination in December or early January can still provide benefits,” Delbridge said.

High-risk groups who should get a flu shot include: people age 65 and over; those with chronic heart, lung or metabolic disorders such as diabetes or asthma; individuals with kidney disease, anemia or immunosuppression such as HIV or AIDS; nursing home residents; children six months or older with respiratory disorders; children on long-term aspirin therapy; in-home care providers of high-risk patients; medical-care personnel who routinely have patient contact, and frequent travelers.

This year the CDC is urging that healthy babies ages 6-23 months receive a flu shot.

Individuals who get the flu should: drink plenty of water, rest as much as possible, take aspirin or acetaminophen to relieve fever and pain (but do not give children aspirin). The flu cannot be treated with antibiotics.

For information on where flu shots are available, call the Allegheny County Health Department: 412/687-2243.

Filed under: Feature,Volume 35 Issue 6

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