As fall approaches, so does the cold and flu season. Influenza (better known as the "seasonal flu") is caused by a virus. The virus is spread by coughing, sneezing or being in close contact with someone who is infected.

In 1918, the Spanish Flu epidemic took the lives of more than 50 million people. Today, more than 5 million flu cases are reported worldwide with thousands of deaths each year. These statistics are especially frightening for the elderly who have more compromised immune systems resulting in more serious cases of the disease. Secondary infections, such as pneumonia, are responsible for most of the flu deaths each year.

Once infected with the flu virus, patients will usually develop a high fever (greater than 102), shaking chills, a dry cough and overwhelming fatigue. If untreated, these symptoms can last days or weeks.

Things you can do to protect yourself:

Get a flu shot

Everyone 6 months and older should have a flu shot. Depending on age, you may be advised to receive a high dose flu shot or a nasal spray. It may take up to two weeks to develop immunity to the virus.

The flu shot is up to 90 percent effective in preventing the disease. The flu shot will not cause the flu.

If you have an allergy to eggs or have had a reaction to the flu shot, you might not be eligible to get the vaccine. Talk to your doctor.

If you are sick, do not receive the shot until your illness has resolved.

The flu virus changes from year to year and immunity from previous flu shots will wane over time. Yearly shots are recommended.

The flu season runs from October through May. However, there are two peaks in the number of cases reported -- December and February. Early vaccination is recommended.

Most insurance (including Medicare) will cover the shot.

Decrease your risk

Hand washing has been shown to decrease the risk of transmission.

Cover your mouth with your arm or a tissue if you cough or sneeze.

Don't share drinks.

Visit your doctor if you are exposed or develop symptoms of the flu:

Tests are available to determine if you have the flu.

Anti-flu medications are available, but are most only effective if taken within 24 to 48 hours after symptoms arise.

Avoid contact with others if you have the flu:

Patients with the flu are contagious before symptoms appear and for several days afterwards. If you have been diagnosed with the flu, do not go to work or school. Avoiding contact with others will decrease the likelihood of epidemics.

Flu shots are already available at your local physician's office. In addition, many pharmacies and health departments are also administering the vaccine. Getting a shot will protect you and may also protect your family and friends. If you don't get the flu, you cannot transmit it to another person. Remember, an ounce of prevention is certainly worth a pound of cure. Get your flu shot today.

Contact Dr. Schwartz at his website, www.DrmichaelBschwartz.com.

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