The United States is in the midst of a particularly rough – and deadly – flu season. According to the latest from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the current flu outbreak is responsible for at least 53 child deaths so far this season.
High levels of flu-like illness are being reported in 42 states and hospitalizations for flu continue to rise across the country.
The flu is most dangerous for older adults age 65 and over, young children under the age of 5, and people with compromised immune systems. These groups of people are more likely to experience severe or even deadly complications from the flu.
Still, anyone can be affected by the flu and there are steps everyone can take to prevent its spread.
Get a flu shot
The absolute best protection against the flu is to get a flu shot, even though the vaccine is far from foolproof. The CDC recommends everyone age 6 months and older be vaccinated against the flu each year.
Last week, Canadian researchers reported that this year’s flu vaccine is less than 20 percent effectiveagainst the most dominant strain of the virus. However, experts emphasize that the vaccine still offers some protection and can reduce the severity of illness if you do get infected.
While it is best to get a flu shot before the start of flu season, experts say it’s still not too late to get vaccinated if you haven’t done so already.
Avoid contact with sick people
People who are sick with the flu can spread the virus to others up to about 6 feet away. Flu spreads mainly by microscopic droplets that go airborne when people who are infected cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can get into the mouths or noses of people nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs, or linger on surfaces nearby.
To avoid getting sick, limit contact with sick people and stay home from work or school if you are ill. Also avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth, as viruses enter the body this way.
Wash your hands frequently
Another important way to avoid getting sick with the flu or other bugs is to “wash your stinking hands,” as Florida nurse Katherine Lockler put it in a video that recently went viral. And wash them right: scrub your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If you need a timer, experts recommend humming the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice. Don’t forget to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
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If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
Keep your environment clean
While experts believe the flu virus is mostly spread from person to person through droplets in the air, it is also possible to get the flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching your mouth or nose. Doorknobs, countertops, airplane tray tables, computer keyboards and phones can silently transfer germs from one person to another.
To avoid this, clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that may be contaminated with germs like the flu. Household items like linens, eating utensils, and dishes belonging to those who are sick should not be shared with others without washing thoroughly first.
Cover coughs and sneezes properly. To avoid spreading germs, avoid coughing and sneezing directly into your hands. Instead, cough or sneeze into a tissue and then immediately throw the tissue away, or else cough or sneeze into your upper sleeve.
Wear a face mask when visiting a hospital
Though not 100 percent effective, wearing a surgical mask can help prevent the spread of the flu. Since hospital patients may have an illness that has compromised their immune system, taking steps to protect them from the flu — such as having visitors wear a mask and wash or disinfect their hands whenever they enter the room — is important. Healthy visitors can also benefit from the mask’s protection at a time when many hospitals report being swamped with flu patients.
Take antiviral drugs if your doctor prescribes them
If you get the flu, your doctor may prescribe an antiviral drug such as Tamiflu to treat it. These prescription medications are different than antibiotics, which treat bacterial infections and don’t work against the flu virus.
Antiviral drugs can make the illness milder and shorten the time you are sick, especially if taken soon after symptoms first arise. For people at high risk of complications from the flu — such as those 65 or older, young children, pregnant women, and people with other medical issues — it could mean the difference between having a milder illness versus a very serious illness that could result in hospitalization.
If you are prescribed antiviral drugs, follow your doctor’s instructions for taking them.