Flu season is upon us. The CDC FluView map indicates widespread influenza is occurring in most states. Unless you live in Guam, which is the only place where the CDC reports no flu activity, chances are that you, or someone you know has probably been affected by the flu.

While flu season typically can begin as early as October and as late as May, January and February are usually the months where we see the peak activity in the United States. The flu does appear to have gotten off to an earlier start this year, but it is still too early to predict its severity.

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What are the symptoms of the flu and what can we all do to minimize the impact on ourselves and loved ones? Symptoms of the flu and cold can be somewhat similar. However the symptoms are distinguished by the level of severity.

Symptoms of the flu include fever, chills, body aches, headache, sore throat, cough and fatigue. Some report vomiting and diarrhea accompanying these flu symptoms. Cold symptoms are usually milder and include runny nose, congestion, a productive cough and a sore throat. A cold often presents without fever.

The two most important steps one can take to prevent getting the flu include getting a flu shot and thorough, frequent hand washing.

It is not too late to get a flu shot. It takes approximately two weeks to acquire immunity once you are vaccinated. Is vaccination foolproof and a guarantee that you will not get sick? Unfortunately no, however, the CDC reports that with moderate effectiveness of about 60 percent, the flu shot has been shown to reduce the incidence of flu-related illness, antibiotic use, time lost from work, hospitalizations and deaths.

The flu shot is recommended for everyone, although it is strongly urged for those at highest risk for increased severity of symptoms and other complications from the flu. This includes infants and children, pregnant women, elderly, those with disabilities limiting mobility, and those suffering from health conditions such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease, chronic lung disease, and immuno-suppressed patients such as cancer and HIV/AIDS patients.

In order to prevent the spread of the flu virus, there are several recommendations. These include hand washing, proper cough and sneeze etiquette (coughing or sneezing into the sleeve or tissue, not the hands and then washing hands), and cleaning frequently touched surfaces such as hand railings and phones.

If you or a loved one does contract the flu what should you do?

For most people who are at low risk for dangerous complications, the best action is to hunker down, drink plenty of fluids, alleviate a fever with Tylenol or Ibuprofen, take over the counter cough medicine if needed and get plenty of sleep. A trip to the doctor's office and especially the emergency department may mean a long wait followed by the same instructions, unless you are in a high risk group. Call your doctor first to ask for advice if symptoms seem to be particularly worrisome.

The instructions for pregnant women and those at high risk due to age or medical condition (noted above) include calling the doctor as soon as symptoms present. This is because you may need anti-viral drugs to treat flu symptoms. These include Tamiflu and Relenza. The CDC issued a report on January 10, 2013 indicating there may be intermittent shortages of these drugs, however Lisa Dalton from the Finksburg Pharmacy reports that they have plenty of Tamiflu with more on order and plenty of flu shot doses.

I stress that for most of the normally healthy population, the flu will come and last for a few days to a week and just be a nuisance. The nagging cough, on the other hand, seems to being hanging on for a longer time. Taking care of yourself and resting will be the best cure. For those with special health concerns, extra diligence is recommended to safe guard against more threatening complications. In order to do what we can to protect those around us, avoid leaving the house and returning to school or work until at least 24 hours after the fever has passed.

The flu is caused by a virus and viruses do not respond to antibiotics. Many people will want to rush to the doctor for an antibiotic, which will not work against the flu. Antibiotics are only relevant to treating bacteria, which causes complications such as pneumonia, sinus infections (and no, green snot for a day is not a sinus infection -- excuse the bluntness) and ear infections. We have been lulled into believing that an antibiotic is the magic bullet for anything that ails us. We all must be careful not to overuse antibiotics to avoid drug resistance, which will leave us all susceptible to illness untreatable by antibiotics in the future.

Start now to avoid getting the flu by getting the flu shot, washing your hands, hydrate, hydrate, hydrate, and consider staying cuddled up on the sofa until the bug moves on and hopefully passes you by.

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