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What you need to know about the flu

Jan. 18, 2013

Unless you’ve just returned from a mission to Mars, you’ve probably heard that this year’s flu season is off to a roaring start.

So what do you need to know about the flu and, most importantly, how to keep from getting it?

The first and best step is to get a flu vaccination right away if you haven’t already. Getting your flu vaccine will not only help keep you from getting the flu most of the time, but immunizing yourself also protects your family, friends and co-workers. Your health insurance generally should pay for the cost of your shot, but check first with your provider or pharmacy to make sure they accept your coverage.

Beyond getting a shot, make sure that you wash your hands – or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer – often. Keep your hands away from your eyes, nose or mouth as much as possible to stop germs from entering your body. Wash shared surfaces like phones and keyboards frequently. It may sound obvious, but try to avoid contact with sick people – and if you’re sick, stay home at least 24 hours after your fever is gone to prevent others from catching your illness.

The good news is that most people with the flu have mild illness and do not need medical care or antiviral drugs. Make sure you get plenty of liquids to stay hydrated – herbal tea with honey can help take the edge off a sore throat, and the generations-old remedy of a little chicken soup can’t hurt. Get plenty of rest and use a humidifier and warm compress to ease nasal congestion and sinus pain. Lozenges can also help subdue a sore throat and cough.

Certain people are at greater risk of serious flu-related complications, including young children, elderly persons, pregnant women and people with certain long-term medical conditions. If you are in a high risk group and develop flu symptoms, it’s best to contact your doctor.

If you’re not in a high-risk category but are very sick or worried about your illness, your insurer might offer a 24/7 nurse line that can allow you seek advice from home. Do not go to the emergency room if you are only mildly ill – you likely will have a long wait and, if it turns out you don’t have the flu yet, you risk catching it from people who have it. Instead, visit a local retail health clinic, urgent care center or make an appointment with your doctor. Keep washing those hands and stay healthy!

You can find more flu information and tips from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services at www.flu.gov.

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Dr. Michael Jaeger is the managing medical director for Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Wisconsin.

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