Make this winter a healthy, flu-free one

The colder winter months are upon us, which means it’s time to wrap up warmly and do your best to keep flu bugs at bay.

We’re all susceptible to the coughs and sneezes of winter, but many people face a double blow when it comes to flu viruses. Some of us have compromised immune systems (which makes it harder to ward off the flu virus and flu complications such as pneumonia), while others are frequently exposed to the viruses because of the work they do.

Brush up on the facts, and go for your flu shot as soon as you can.

Don’t hesitate, vaccinate!
Getting an annual flu vaccination remains your best defence against the flu virus. Due to slight changes in the genetic material of the influenza viruses A and B, new virus strains emerge each year. So, last year’s flu shot simply won’t protect you against this year’s viruses.

It may be just a tiny prick, but a flu vaccination goes a long way in terms of reducing hospital admissions and even deaths. The vaccine becomes even more important if the following applies:

• You’re aged 65 or older (if you live in a retirement home, your risk for getting the flu is even higher).
• You have a heart problem, such as heart failure.
• You suffer from a respiratory problem, such as asthma or emphysema.
• You have another chronic illness such as anaemia, diabetes or kidney failure.
• Your immune system is compromised (e.g. you’re HIV-positive, you’re receiving long-term corticosteroid treatment, or you’re receiving radiation and/or chemotherapy).
• You’ve been hospitalised or treated for chronic illness in the last year.
• You’re in the 2nd or 3rd trimester of pregnancy (pregnancy can increase your risk for serious medical complications from influenza).
• You’re in the first trimester of pregnancy and you have a medical condition that increases your risk for complications.
• You care for the ill at, for example, a nursing home or another facility that provides care for chronically ill persons.
• You’re in close contact with a high-risk individual.
• You’re planning to travel to the tropics at any time or to the northern hemisphere between October and February.
• You’re a community service provider (e.g. you’re in the police, you’re a paramedic or you’re a fire fighter).

Children and teens in the high-risk group include:

• Those between the ages of 6 and 23 months – their immunity against diseases are low while their exposure rate is high (especially if they attend a crèche).
• Children who have chronic heart or lung disorders, including asthma.
• Children who have chronic illnesses, as well as those who have required hospitalisation or regular visits to the doctor during the preceding year.
• Children who live with someone in a high-risk group.
• Children and teenagers (from six months to 18 years of age) on long-term aspirin therapy, because of the dangers of Reye's syndrome if they catch the flu and run a fever.

Note that school-aged children are two to three times more likely than adults to get influenza, and to rapidly spread the virus to others. Studies have shown that families with school-aged children have more infections than other families.

What to do if you get the flu
The first step is to act immediately if you suspect you have the flu. You may experience some or all of these symptoms:

• A high fever (often higher than 39°C) with chills. The fever is highest in children and least marked in the elderly.
• Dry cough
• Sore throat
• Blocked nose or nasal discharge
• Sweating and shivering
• Muscle aches and pains, especially in the legs (the “I've been run over by a bus” feeling)
• A general feeling of unwellness
• Fatigue and wanting to sleep all day

When to see a doctor
Check in with your doctor if any of the following applies:

• You have a high fever for more than a few hours that doesn’t respond to over-the-counter medicine, and you’re not certain whether it’s due to flu, or not.
• Your fever lasts longer than two days.
• You feel sick and just don't seem to get better.
• You have a cough that begins to produce phlegm.
• You have difficulty breathing or feel a sharp pain when breathing.

If you fall into any of the high-risk categories recommended for vaccination, even a mild bout of flu should be treated by a doctor. This includes people with cancer, people on medication after organ transplantation, and HIV-positive people.

Your doctor may prescribe antiviral medication and will check for secondary bacterial infections and complications. Stay in bed, rest and drink enough fluids to give your body time to fight infection.

REMEMBER: Don’t wait till it’s too late! Get your flu shot at a pharmacy or clinic near you, or at your GP.

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