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Flu Facts

An ill man

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'Tis the Season

As winter approaches, the flu season picks up steam. The flu season starts in November and runs through April, with its peak between late December and late March. As many people know from their own personal experience, becoming ill with this respiratory ailment is extremely unpleasant and can significantly disrupt lives.


Influenza, the flu, is caused by a virus that infects the respiratory system (e.g., the nose, throat, and lungs). It is spread when an infected person coughs, sneezes, and talks, sending the virus into the air where others can inhale it. People may also become infected by touching surfaces such as doorknobs or telephones, where the virus is present and then by touching their nose or mouth. The flu is highly contagious. To prevent the spread of the virus, people should practice consistent hand washing and do their best to keep their hands away from their nose and mouth.

What the Numbers Tell Us

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that 10% to 20% of U.S. residents will get the flu each year. The CDC also estimates that 114,000 people will be hospitalized and 36,000 will die as a result of influenza. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, approximately 192 million days will be spent in bed due to people having the flu. Although most people recover from the flu within a week or two, some people who become ill with the flu are at greater risk for developing pneumonia and other serious complications.


The CDC’s traditional recommendations on who should get a flu shot (and when) have included priorities for certain high risk groups. This means that people who are at greater risk from the flu and its potential complications should be the first people to get the vaccine. These include:

  • persons age 50 years or older;
  • young children age 6 months to 23 months;
  • persons who reside in long-term care facilities who have long-term illnesses;
  • adults and children (age 6 months or older) who have chronic heart or lung conditions (including asthma), chronic kidney disease, weakened immune systems, or metabolic diseases such as diabetes;
  • children (age 6 months to 18 years) who receive long-term aspirin therapy and could develop Reye Syndrome after the flu;
  • women who will be more than 3 months pregnant during the flu season; and
  • people working in health care or related settings to prevent infecting those in their care.

This year, however, the CDC is recommending that everyone (with the few exceptions noted below) receive a flu vaccine. It has been reported nationally that the virus expected to hit the U.S. this season is very potent. There is plenty of vaccine to go around and people are urged to take advantage of it.

The following people SHOULD NOT receive flu shots:

  • persons who have a severe allergy to eggs;
  • persons who have had a severe reaction to a flu shot in the past; and
  • persons who have developed Guillain-Barre' Syndrome during the 6 week period following a flu shot.

One myth about the flu is that the vaccine in flu shots causes the flu. This is not true. The flu vaccine used in the United States is made from inactivated (killed) flu viruses. This vaccine cannot cause the flu or flu illness. There is also a new form of the vaccine available that is administered in a nasal spray. People should contact their physician or health care professional regarding the most appropriate means of protection against the flu virus.

Taking Care of Yourself and Your Family Member

Should you or a family member come down with a case of the flu, there are things you can do to alleviate the symptoms and feel better. Resting and drinking plenty of fluids are both very helpful. Avoiding alcohol and tobacco is also recommended. Some over-the-counter medications may lessen the symptoms; just make sure your physician approves their use. Children and teenagers should avoid taking aspirin due to the possibility of developing the rare but serious illness called Reye Syndrome. Your physician or health care professional can advise you on the best course of action to relieve discomfort.

Cold vs. Flu

Have you ever wondered whether it was the flu or a cold that was making you feel so miserable? This chart illustrates comparative information on frequently noted symptoms.

Symptoms Flu Cold
Fever Yes, can be 102 degrees or higher Rare, if present very low grade
Headache Yes Possible
Fatigue Yes, at times quite extreme Possible, rarely extreme
Cough Yes Yes, productive
Sore Throat Yes, dry Possible
Nasal Passages Yes, nasal congestion Yes, runny nose
Body Aches Yes, can be very severe Possible, not severe
Onset Sudden Gradual
Ability to carry out daily activities No Yes
Severity Can be very severe for several days Likely to feel "under the weather" for a few days


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Last updated on Tue, 06/15/2010 - 09:22