How to help avoid the flu

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To help avoid spreading germs, wash your hands regularly and cover your mouth with the inside of your elbow, not your hands when you cough or sneeze. Valley News/Courtesy photo

A sore throat, a headache, body aches or a persistent cough. We’ve all had those symptoms, and it’s easy to immediately chalk it up to a common cold. But what if it’s a more serious virus, like the flu?

Last year’s widespread influenza season was the longest in 10 years, lasting 21 weeks and infecting more than 37 million Americans. Preliminary results estimate the flu killed between 36,400 and 61,200 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It also resulted in nearly 650,000 hospitalizations.

As winter nears, consider these tips on how to help yourself and those around you manage the flu season.

Avoid spreading germs. To help avoid spreading germs, wash your hands regularly and cover your mouth with the inside of your elbow, not your hands when you cough or sneeze. A sneeze ejects 100,000 viral particles into the air that can travel 200 feet.

Feeling symptoms? Check it out.

If you think you might have the flu, even if you received a flu shot, call your primary care physician, visit a convenience care retail clinic or urgent care clinic or schedule a virtual visit. Treatment for any viral illness starts with lots of rest, liquids and acetaminophen or aspirin, although aspirin should not be given to children.

People who are very sick or at high risk for serious flu complications may be treated with antiviral drugs such as oseltamivir, commonly known by the brand name Tamiflu. Your primary care physician can assess whether an antiviral medication is right for you.

If you’re sick, stay home.

If you suspect you have the flu, stay home to prevent spreading it to others. Most healthy adults may be able to infect others one day before symptoms appear and up to seven days after becoming sick.

Know your risk level.

The flu is of greatest concern for the very young, the very old or those with co-existing medical conditions. Here are some examples of groups at risk and the steps they should consider taking when symptoms begin: pregnant women should contact their obstetricians to report their symptoms; people with diabetes, particularly those using insulin who develop difficult-to-control glucose levels, should contact their physician at first symptoms of the flu and those with weakened immune systems should alert their physician of their flu symptoms.

Those experiencing an increasing shortness of breath, especially people with chronic asthma or heart failure, should go to an emergency room for treatment.

Symptoms of a cold are often similar to the flu. Make sure you know what to look for and when it’s time to see a doctor or go to an urgent care clinic before it becomes serious.

Dr. John Chang is a senior medical director for UnitedHealthcare.