With the beginning of fall comes the beginning of influenza season. The contagious virus knocks millions of people off their feet every year.

But there is a way to prevent, or at least minimize, the nasty bug, said Dr. Theodore Bailey, chief of the Greater Baltimore Medical Center’s division of infectious disease and part of GBMC Health Partners.

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Get a flu shot, he said.

When is a good time to get a flu vaccine, and if I put it off can I get one later?

The best time to get the vaccine is in the fall when it becomes available, typically in late September or early October. It provides protection over the flu season, whereas going without a vaccination increases the risk of infection. That said, the flu season runs for several months, so even if you don’t get one early, it’s still worth getting later.

Who should get a vaccination and who can’t?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyone 6 months and up get a flu vaccination. And people who should not get the vaccine are people who have had an adverse reaction to the vaccine in the past. There are different preparations of the flu vaccine, including ones appropriate for those with egg allergies. [Vaccines are traditionally prepared in eggs.]

What are the symptoms of the flu, and what are the possible complications?

One person may have some symptoms and others may have different symptoms. They include fever, weakness, muscle aches, cough, sore throat and gastrointestinal upset. The flu can be a severe respiratory infection to the point of respiratory arrest. People do die. The CDC says there are 30,000 to 50,000 deaths per year related to the flu and 500,000 are hospitalized from the flu. The most famous instance of severe flu was in 1918 when millions were killed.

Is there a way to know how bad this season will be, or can we count on every season making people sick?

It is variable, and there are emerging efforts at flu-casting, as in forecasting the flu. They have been trying to look back at older flu seasons to understand the flu and if the current one is looking more or less severe. It is an imperfect science, but the CDC and other public health agencies are offering to make predictions. I’ve not seen a prediction yet this year. Though, when we look back over the last 10 years, even in the less severe years there are tens of thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of severe infections.

The flu vaccine isn’t always effective in preventing the flu, why should I get one anyway?

We continue to vaccinate for the same reason airplanes continue to use radar even though it doesn’t prevent all accidents. The ability to prevent bad outcomes is not perfect, but the vaccine reduces the risk of the flu and reduces the severity of it. The other part is the flu recommendations are aimed at protecting not just the individual but the general population. In the United States, the rates of vaccination are quite poor. It was 43% last year, and maybe 30% to 38% the year before. We’re not successful as a whole. To get the flu, you have to be exposed to someone with the flu. If that person had been vaccinated, you would have been less likely to get it.

Where is the vaccine available?

It’s available through your primary care doctor, infectious disease clinics like mine, pharmacies. There are a wide range of places, and there isn’t one particular place that’s better than another.

What do I do if I get the flu?

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If you have symptoms that you suspect are the flu, there is rapid testing. You can have your nose or mouth swabbed to see if it’s flu or a less severe virus. And if indeed it’s the flu, there are treatments, antiviral medications. The most well known is Tamiflu. The medicine can reduce the duration and severity of symptoms and can be used by people exposed to the flu, like if someone in your house has the flu. It has to be taken within a couple days of symptoms appearing. If your symptoms are mild, convalescing at home is fine. But recognize the flu can be severe and don’t minimize the symptoms. If they are severe or worsening seek medical attention.

What else?

Don’t forget good hand hygiene. Cough and sneeze into your sleeve. Viruses are transmitted by droplets and have a range of 4 feet. And stay home when you are feeling ill. It’s not a virtue to work when you are sick; it’s a vice. Take a sick day or two. Be aware that you are contagious one day before symptoms develop to a week after symptoms begin.

Any more advice?

Please get your shot.

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