People of all ages can get the flu, a viral respiratory tract infection marked by fever, muscle aches, sore throat and dry cough. If you're healthy, the seasonal flu usually isn't serious, although it may make you feel miserable. It usually goes away in a week or two. But, some people have a more serious reaction to the illness and may need to be hospitalized. They may develop complications such as:
- Asthma flare-ups
- Heart problems
- Ear infections
Pneumonia is the most serious complication. For older adults and people with a chronic illness, pneumonia can be deadly. Factors that may increase your risk of developing the flu or its complications include:
- Age –Young children and older adults are at greatest risk.
- Living conditions –Such as dorms, nursing homes or military barracks.
- Weakened immune system –Due to cancer treatments, anti-rejection drugs, corticosteroids or HIV/AIDS.
- Chronic illnesses –Including asthma, diabetes or heart problems.
- Pregnancy –Particularly in the second and third trimesters.
- Obesity –People with a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or above.
Although each flu season is different, 5 to 20 percent of the population will get the flu each year. Of those who get the flu, between 3,000 and 49,000 will die from it or from complications — with more than 90 percent of deaths occurring in people over 65, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The flu virus passes through the air when an infected person sneezes or coughs. You can also get the flu by touching an object that’s been handled by someone infected, then touching your mouth, nose or eyes. If you catch the flu, you’re contagious a day or more before symptoms appear, and until about five days after your symptoms began.
According to the CDC, seasonal flu activity can start as early as October and continues as late as May. The CDC recommends these steps for preventing the flu:
- Get the flu vaccine. A yearly flu vaccine is the most important step in preventing illness. Although there are many flu viruses, the vaccine protects against the three or four that research suggests will be most common that season. Everyone age 6 months and older should get vaccinated — particularly those who are at high risk of flu complications, including young children, people 65 and older, pregnant women, and those with chronic conditions such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease. At El Camino Health, we ask everyone on our staff to get vaccinated annually — or to wear a mask if they decline a vaccination — to protect themselves as well as our patients.
- Adopt flu-prevention habits. Practice some simple behaviors to prevent the spread of germs, such as washing your hands frequently, coughing into a tissue or a sleeve, and disinfecting surfaces and objects that may be contaminated with the flu virus. If possible, avoid contact with those who have the flu, and stay home if you have flu-like symptoms.
To learn where annual flu shots are available in Santa Clara County, visit:
- HealthMap Vaccine Finder – A free, online service that allows you to search for immunizations nearby.
- Santa Clara County Public Health – Information about flu activity in Santa Clara County and immunizations provided at the county’s Adult Immunization and Travel Clinic.
Once your doctor distinguishes the flu virus from other viral infections, he or she can prescribe antiviral drugs to reduce the duration of the flu and help prevent more serious problems. However, for the antiviral drugs to be effective, you must take them within 48 hours of the appearance of your symptoms.
For healthy people, home remedies may help ease your discomfort:
- Drink plenty of liquids to prevent dehydration.
- Get more sleep to help your immune system fight infection.
- Consider using an over-the-counter pain reliever for muscle aches.