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Think You Know Everything About the Flu?

Personal Health

By Nancy Johnston Hall

We’re heading into flu season, from December into the spring. So now is a good time to find out what you know (and don’t know) about preventing and treating this common but potentially serious virus.

True or false? The flu (influenza) is just a bad cold. False—a cold and the flu are caused by different viruses. A fever, headache, and aches and pains are rare for a cold, common with the flu. Chest discomfort and cough are mild to moderate with colds, but can be severe with flu. A cold comes on gradually, flu symptoms come roaring into your body.

True or false? There’s no point in getting a flu shot because it sometimes doesn’t work. The answer is … complicated. True, the flu vaccine can vary in how well it protects you, but even so, a flu vaccine is definitely the first and best way to prevent seasonal influenza. A recent study shows that getting a flu shot reduces the risk of flu by between 40 percent and 60 percent during seasons when the flu viruses are well matched to the flu vaccine. During years when the vaccine and the ever-changing viruses aren’t well matched, it’s possible that a flu shot won’t provide protection. However, some research suggests that while someone who is vaccinated may still get infected, the illness may be milder. The flu can be very serious, even leading to death in high risk folks (adults 65 or older, people who are obese, are pregnant, have diabetes, heart disease, or a number of other health problems). So why take the chance?

True or false? Touching a virus-contaminated door knob can give you the flu virus. Possibly true, depending on what happens next. A study done at the Mayo Clinic in the US found that the length of time that cold or flu germs can survive outside the body on an object varies from a few seconds to 48 hours, depending on the type of surface. The best way to avoid becoming infected when you touch a contaminated surface is to wash your hands frequently with soap and water or with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, especially during flu season. Also keep your hands away from your face. While the most common way to catch the flu is to breathe air containing infected droplets when someone with the flu coughs, sneezes, or talks, you can also catch the flu by touching something—TV remote, door knob, stair rail—that a flu-infected person recently touched. If you then touch your eyes, nose, or mouth—without washing your hands thoroughly—you can transfer the virus and infect yourself.

True or false? When you get the flu, you just wait it out—no need to see a doctor. False. If you have flu symptoms and are at risk of complications, see your doctor right away. Taking antiviral drugs within the first 48 hours after you first notice symptoms may reduce the length of your illness and help prevent more serious problems.


Nancy Johnston Hall is a retired health writer with 40 years of experience. She has a master’s degree in medical journalism. Two years ago, Nancy and her husband became part-time residents of San Miguel.


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