By Dierdre Wheat, M.D., Medical Director, Quality, Disease & Case Management, Independent Health

Fall is here, and so is the flu season. The flu spreads mainly through droplets, which can infect people through coughing, sneezing and/or touching contaminated surfaces.

Experts agree that the best way to protect you and your family from the flu is by getting an annual flu shot. Scientific studies have shown that the flu vaccine reduces the intensity and duration of flu, as well as decreases flu-related serious illnesses, doctor visits, hospitalizations, and sick days from work and school.

Plus, the flu shot is one of more than 60 preventive services that Independent Health covers at a $0 copayment.

Key facts about the flu shot

Your best bet is to get a flu shot early in the flu season, so your body has a chance to build up immunity to the virus. You may be able to get one at your doctor’s office and other locations, such as your workplace, local pharmacies, community centers or supermarket.

If you cannot make it to your doctor or are looking for an alternative site of service, check HealthMap Vaccine Finder sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which can help you find a place to get the flu shot (or other shots), based on your zip code.

Here’s what experts at the CDC says about the flu vaccine:

  • Everyone 6 months of age and older should receive a yearly flu vaccine
  • A yearly flu shot is important because the virus changes year to year
  • Strive to vaccinate by the end of October, but it’s okay to get the flu shot later
  • Special high-dose flu vaccine is available for those 65 years and older
  • Some young children may require two flu vaccines

Those who are higher risk for flu complications include:

  • Children younger than 5 years old, especially those under 2 years
  • Pregnant women
  • Adults 50 years and older
  • People with low immunity
  • Residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities
  • Native Americans and Alaskan Natives
  • People with chronic medical conditions such as heart disease, asthma, COPD, etc.
  • People who take care of those at high risk for flu complications

Talk with your doctor about getting the flu shot. The CDC has timely information about the flu as well.

Be Proactive

In addition to getting a flu shot, here are other simple some steps you can take to help you stay healthy during flu season:

  • Wash your hands often to help protect you from germs. It is especially important to wash your hands after using bathroom facilities and before eating. If you use soap and water, wash for as long as it takes to sing the Happy Birthday song twice. If you use hand sanitizer, sanitizer should be rubbed into your hands until they are dry.
  • Avoid close contact with those who are sick. Likewise, if you are sick, keep your distance from others.
  • Avoid touching your face. The virus enters your body through your nose, mouth and eyes.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it. If a tissue is not available, cough or sneeze into your upper sleeve or elbow, not your hands.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Boost your intake of fruits and vegetables. Dark green, red, blue, and yellow vegetables and fruits are packed with natural infection fighters.
  • Stay physically active. Moderate to high intensity aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, dancing and ice skating, can help increase your body’s natural defense against viruses.
  • Get adequate sleep. Lack of sleep can negatively affect your immune system. Most adults need about 7 to 9 hours of sleep for good health. It’s recommended that school-aged children get anywhere from 9 to 11 hours of sleep a night.
  • Learn to relax. Being relaxed helps your immune system produces more of the substances needed to fight infection. Try deep abdominal breathing, meditation, or just closing your eyes and imagine a calming scene. Do this for several minutes every day.

If you get sick

  • Stay home! Flu-like symptoms include fever (i.e., 100 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer), cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. Some people also may have vomiting and diarrhea. You can pass the flu to others from one day before you have symptoms up to five to seven days after you get sick. Some people might infect others even longer.
  • If you are concerned you have the flu, contact your doctor. The flu can be treated with antiviral medications, which work best when started within two days of symptoms first appearing.
  • Plan to stay home until at least 24 hours after you no longer have a fever or signs of a fever (i.e., have chills, feel very warm, have a flushed appearance or are sweating). This should be determined without the use of fever-reducing medicines that contain ibuprofen or acetaminophen.

Remember, prevention is your best defense against flu and other viruses common this time of year. By getting a flu shot and following these tips, you will be well prepared for this year’s flu season.