Protect yourself, your family and your colleagues from flu

By Kathleen Julian

It’s just about that time again -- flu season is right around the corner. With the emergence of the H1N1 flu (“swine flu”, novel influenza A (H1N1)) earlier this year and an expected resurgence this fall, it’s even more important to know what you can do now to protect yourself and those around you from getting sick.

Novel H1N1 flu spreads in the same way as seasonal influenza viruses, mainly through the coughs and sneezes of people who are sick with the virus. You also could pick up flu virus if you touch contaminated surfaces and then you touch your nose or mouth. For example, if you shake hands with an ill person who has recently held a contaminated Kleenex or touch a recently contaminated doorknob, the influenza virus could be transferred to your hand. If you then rub your nose, you could become infected. Although it was previously referred to as “swine flu,” H1N1 flu cannot be contracted by eating pork or related food items.

Seasonal flu and novel H1N1 flu infection can cause a wide range of symptoms, including fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. In addition, many people also have reported nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea.

To protect yourself, your family and your colleagues this flu season:

-- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.

-- Wash hands frequently with soap and water or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

-- Cough or sneeze into the crook of your arm (at your elbow) to keep illness from spreading through droplets dispersed into the air.

-- If you use a tissue to wipe your nose or mouth, discard the contaminated tissue and promptly wash your hands.

Vaccination also is an important prevention method when it comes to flu. Although there are many different flu viruses, the seasonal flu vaccine protects against three seasonal viruses that research advises will be most common. The vaccine can protect you from getting sick from these viruses. SEASONAL INFLUENZA vaccination is highly recommended for, but not limited to:

-- Children aged 6 months to 18 years

-- People aged 50 years or older

-- Pregnant women

-- People with certain chronic medical conditions (e.g., asthma, weakened immune systems) who are at higher risk for complications of influenza.

-- People who live with or care for children younger than 6 months old, adults aged 50 years or older. People with certain chronic medical conditions (e.g., asthma, weakened immune systems) who are at higher risk for complications of influenza.

-- Health care personnel

There will also be a separate vaccine for H1N1 flu later in the fall. CDC recommends that the INFLUENZA A (H1N1) vaccine be prioritized for certain persons- while there are many similarities to recommendations for seasonal influenza vaccine, the H1N1 vaccine is targeted for a wider range of young people, including:

-- People between the ages of 6 months and 24 years old

-- People between the ages of 25 through 64 years of age who are at higher risk for complications of 2009 H1N1 because of certain chronic medical conditions or weakened immune systems

This prioritization strategy was designed by CDC because the highest rate of H1N1 infection has been in younger persons, specifically among persons aged 5--24 years. The rate of infection has been lowest among persons aged 65 years or greater.

People who are sick with an influenza-like illness (fever plus at least cough or sore throat and possibly other symptoms like runny nose, body aches, headaches, chills, fatigue, vomiting and diarrhea) should stay home and keep away from others for at least 24 hours after fever is gone. Other restrictions apply to healthcare workers. If you need to seek medical care, upon arrival to the healthcare facility, ask for a mask to wear while you are being evaluated. This is another way you can help prevent others from getting sick.

Kathleen Julian is a physician and assistant professor of Medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

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Last Updated October 13, 2009