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According to the Centers for Disease Control, the single best way to prevent the flu is to get vaccinated each fall

Influenza Viruses

Influenza, also known as the flu, is a contagious disease that is caused by the influenza virus. It attacks the respiratory tract in humans (nose, throat, and lungs). The flu is different from a cold. Influenza usually comes on suddenly and may include these symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Tiredness (can be extreme)
  • Dry cough
  • Sore throat
  • Nasal congestion
  • Body aches

These symptoms are usually referred to as "flu-like symptoms."

The Flu Season

In the Northern hemisphere, winter is the time for flu. In the United States, the flu season can range from November through March, and even past March in some years. During the past 21 flu seasons, months with the heaviest flu activity (peak months) occurred in December in 4 years, January in 5 years, February in 9 years, and March in 3 years.

Anyone Can Get the Flu, But the Disease Is More Severe for Some People

Most people who get influenza will recover in one to two weeks, but some people will develop life-threatening complications (such as pneumonia) as a result of the flu. Millions of people in the United States — about 5% to 20% of U.S. residents — will get influenza each year. An average of about 36,000 people per year in the United States die from influenza, and 114,000 per year have to be admitted to the hospital as a result of influenza. Anyone can get the flu (even healthy people), and serious problems from influenza can happen at any age. People age 65 years and older, people of any age with chronic medical conditions, and very young children are more likely to get complications from influenza. Pneumonia, bronchitis, and sinus and ear infections are three examples of complications from flu. The flu can make chronic health problems worse. For example, people with asthma may experience asthma attacks while they have the flu, and people with chronic congestive heart failure may have worsening of this condition that is triggered by the flu.

Vaccinations and Medications

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the single best way to prevent the flu is to get vaccinated each fall . In the absence of vaccine, however, there are other ways to protect against flu.

Antiviral Medications can also be used to prevent the flu .

Who Should Be Vaccinated

People who should be vaccinated include:

  • People at high risk for complications from influenza . This includes:
    • People 65 years and older ;
    • People who live in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities that house those with long-term illnesses;
    • Adults and children 6 months and older with chronic heart or lung conditions, including asthma;
    • Adults and children 6 months and older who needed regular medical care or were in a hospital during the previous year because of a metabolic disease (like diabetes), chronic kidney disease, or weakened immune system (including immune system problems caused by medicines or by infection with HIV/AIDS);
    • Children6 months to 18 years of age who are on long-term aspirin therapy. (If given aspirin while they have influenza, they are at risk of Reye syndrome.);
    • Women who will be pregnant during the influenza season; and
    • All children 6 to 23 months of age.
  • People 50 to 64 years of age. ( Nearly one-third of people 50 to 64 years of age in the United States have one or more medical conditions that place them at increased risk for serious complications from influenza.)
  • People who can transmit influenza to others at high risk for complications . This includes:
    • Children and adults who live with someone in a high-risk group, including people who live with children less than 2 years of age ;
    • Doctors, nurses, and other employees in hospitals and doctors’ offices , including emergency response services;
    • People who work in nursing homes and long-term care facilities who have contact with patients or residents;
    • People who work in assisted living and other residences for people in high-risk groups; and
    • Anyone who provides care to those in high-risk groups (including children under the age of 2).

Vaccine Information for Other Groups

General Population

  • Anyone who wants to lower their chances of getting influenza should be vaccinated if they do not have contraindications to receiving influenza vaccine.
  • Vaccination should be considered for people who provide essential community services (such as police officers and firefighters) to minimize disruption of key public-service activities during influenza outbreaks.
  • Vaccination should be encouraged for students living in dormitories or anyone living in an institutional setting since crowded living conditions may mean influenza can spread more easily.

Breastfeeding Mothers

  • Breastfeeding women can be vaccinated. Antibody against influenza is passed in breast milk and may offer additional protection against influenza for infants.

Travelers

The risk of getting influenza during travel depends on the destination and time of travel. In the tropics, influenza can occur year-round. In the Southern Hemisphere, most influenza activity occurs April through September. Travelers also can be exposed during the summer, especially when traveling in tourist groups that include people from parts of the world where influenza virus is circulating.

Depending on the health condition of prospective travelers, providers should consider vaccinating people at high risk for influenza-related complications, especially if they plan to:

  • travel to the tropics;
  • travel with large tourist groups at any time of year; or
  • travel to the Southern Hemisphere from April through September

Also, providers may want to consider prescribing antiviral medications for prevention or treatment to people 50 years and older at high risk for influenza complications who cannot be vaccinated.

Who Should Not Be Vaccinated

The following people should not be vaccinated:

  • People who have a severe allergy (anaphylactic hypersensitivity) to chicken eggs. (Vaccination may still be considered in high-risk people, but only after an appropriate allergy evaluation and desensitization);
  • People who have had a severe reaction to an influenza vaccination in the past. (Vaccination may still be considered in high-risk people, but only after an appropriate allergy evaluation and desensitization);
  • People who developed Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) within 6 weeks of getting an influenza vaccine previously. (Currently, there is no evidence that influenza vaccination increases the risk of GBS recurrence in people with prior GBS unrelated to influenza vaccination);
  • Children less than 6 months of age.
  • People with an acute febrile illness. (These people may be vaccinated once their symptoms have lessened. Minor illnesses are not a contraindication to vaccination.

Prophylactic use of antiviral agents is an option for preventing influenza among such people.

The full Recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) on the Prevention and Control of Influenza can be found at www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/rr5306a1.htm.

For more information, visit www.cdc.gov/flu or call the National Immunization hotline at (800)232-2522 (English), (800)232-0233 (Spanish), or the CDC clinician hotline at 877-554-4625.

Other Good Health Habits

Avoid close contact

Avoid close contact with people who are sick. When you are sick, keep your distance from others to protect them from getting sick too.

Stay home when you are sick

If possible, stay home from work, school, and errands when you are sick. You will help prevent others from catching your illness.

Cover your mouth and nose

Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. It may prevent those around you from getting sick.

Clean your hands

Washing your hands often will help protect you from germs.

Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth

Germs are often spread when a person touches something that is contaminated with germs and then touches his or her eyes, nose, or mouth.