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Feb. 2, 2012 Volume 33, No. 18

The best way to avoid the flu this winter is to get vaccinated, doctors say

Early February is considered prime time for catching the flu, so it’s not too late to get your flu vaccination.

The flu, also known as influenza, is a viral disease that affects the respiratory system. It is contagious and spreads quickly when infected people cough or sneeze. 

People can infect one another one day before showing symptoms and for several days after showing initial symptoms.

Each year, the flu affects an average of five percent to 20 percent of the United States population. It can cause mild to severe illness and sometimes lead to death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In an average year, 35,000 people die from flu, most of whom are elderly.

Flu symptoms, which are often rapid and intense, include fever, fatigue, muscle aches, headache, dry cough, nausea, vomiting, sore throat, chills, loss of appetite, eye pain, sneezing and a runny nose. 

“With the flu, you tend to have a higher fever and less runny nose than with a cold, and you feel much worse,” said William Salzer, director of infectious diseases at MU.

Salzer said the flu season is unpredictable as it can vary somewhat each year.

“Seasonal flu activity usually peaks in January or February, but it can occur as early as October and as late as March,” Salzer explained.

The best way to prevent the flu is to get vaccinated each year, even if you were vaccinated a year ago. 

“Immunity to influenza viruses declines over time and may be too low to provide protection after a year,” Salzer said.

This year’s vaccine will protect against the three influenza viruses that research indicates will be most common during the season, he said. This includes two influenza A viruses — H1N1 and H3N2 — and an influenza B virus.

Though Columbia has not experienced a flu outbreak this winter, health care providers still recommend that people get a flu shot.

“Anyone six months of age and older who has not yet gotten a flu vaccine should get vaccinated now,” Salzer said. “It takes about two weeks after the vaccination for your body to develop an immune response. The risks are minimal — a little sore arm and some swelling at the injection site, but serious adverse events are extremely rare.

“The vaccine also decreases hospitalizations and deaths in the frail elderly and people with heart and lung disease,” Salzer said.

Preventive actions that can help fight flu germs

Along with getting vaccinated, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise people to take several commonsense precautions to avoiding the flu:
•  Wash your hands often with soap and water or alcohol-based cleaners, especially after you cough or sneeze.
•  Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue or your elbow when you cough or sneeze. Dispose of tissue safely.
•  Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.
•  Try to avoid close contact with sick people.
•  If you get sick, stay home from work or school and limit contact with others to keep from infecting them. People with influenza-like symptoms should remain at home until they have been free of fever exceeding 100°F for at least 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medications or until the coughing stops.

Flu shots available

The Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services, at 1005 W. Worley St., is offering flu shots 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. for children and adults. Cost for adults is $25 and for children ages six months to 18 years it’s free. For more information, call 874-7356, or go to