If you know me, you’ve likely heard me exclaim, “Get your flu shot!”

Hopefully you already do that. If you don’t, I’m here to let you know why you should.

I know most of us aren’t terribly excited to voluntarily seek a shot in the arm. It’s kind of like buying a appliance warranty that you might not need, except there’s a huge difference. It’s your health that you’re protecting, and the health of those around you.

What is the flu?

Influenza, or the flu (not to be confused with the “stomach flu”), is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat and sometimes the lungs. It can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death.”

Flu viruses are contagious and spread through tiny droplets that are sent into the air when an infected person talks, coughs or sneezes. These droplets could infect someone else by landing in their mouth or nose.

You also can pick up flu viruses by touching a contaminated surface then touching your mouth, nose or eyes. These are the reasons why we need to cough and sneeze into a tissue or our sleeve and wash our hands regularly and often.

Unfortunately, you can pass the flu on to other people before you even know that you are sick. After exposure, it takes about two days before symptoms appear; the most contagious period is in the first three to four days after the illness begins.

Along with good hand hygiene, flu vaccines are the best tool we have to prevent the flu. They drastically reduce the chance that people will catch and spread it. If you do get the flu after being vaccinated, you typically will have milder symptoms that resolve more quickly than those who are not vaccinated.

But I never get the flu

If you’ve gone through your life so far without getting the flu vaccine and catching the flu, well, congratulations; you’re very lucky. But why continue to take that risk?

The flu is a serious illness. Even if you’re a healthy individual, catching the flu will knock you down for several days (the average duration is seven to 10 days). But let’s talk about the people who perhaps can’t rely on their healthy immune system to protect them from the dangers of the flu. It’s a pretty large group.

Following is a list from the CDC of all the health and age factors that are known to increase a person’s risk of getting serious complications from the flu:

• Asthma.

• Neurologic and neurodevelopment conditions.

• Blood disorders (such as sickle cell disease).

• Chronic lung disease (such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and cystic fibrosis).

• Endocrine disorders (such as diabetes mellitus).

• Heart disease (such as congenital heart disease, congestive heart failure and coronary artery disease).

• Kidney disorders.

• Liver disorders.

• Metabolic disorders (such as inherited metabolic disorders and mitochondrial disorders).

• People who are obese with a body mass index of 40 or higher.

• People younger than 19 years on long-term aspirin- or salicylate-containing medications.

• People with a weakened immune system due to disease (such as people with HIV or AIDS, or some cancers such as leukemia) or medications (such as those receiving chemotherapy or radiation treatment for cancer, or persons with chronic conditions requiring chronic corticosteroids or other drugs that suppress the immune system).

Other people at high risk from the flu:

• Adults 65 and older.

• Children younger than 2. (Although all children younger than 5 are considered at high risk for serious flu complications, the highest risk is for those younger than 2, with the highest hospitalization and death rates among infants younger than 6 months old).

• Pregnant women and women up to 2 weeks after the end of pregnancy.

• American Indians and Alaska natives.

• People who live in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

So, to those who are not receiving your annual flu vaccination, take a look at this list. Do you come into contact with anyone who is at increased risk? Again, you might be able to fight the flu without too much problem, but if you pass the virus along to someone who can’t fight it, they could develop serious — even fatal — complications.

The bottom line is, the more people who get vaccinated against the flu, the fewer people that will get sick with the flu. Protect yourself and those around you.

Source: www.cdc.gov/flu.

Gail Gates is the infection preventionist at MercyOne Dubuque Medical Center.

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