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How to Prepare for Flu Season: A Family Guide

flu season, flu shot, winter, getting sick, prevention

Consider your fall to-do list. While stocking up on all things pumpkin spice and readying your household for the holidays, make sure you remember to get your annual flu shot.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends people get their flu vaccine by the end of October. It can take two weeks for the flu vaccine to be effective, so it's important to stay ahead of the virus.

Influenza is more than just a bad cold. The CDC estimates it has resulted in as many as 710,000 hospitalizations and 56,000 deaths annually since 2010. Those who get flu shots are less likely to get sick from influenza, or have much milder illnesses than if they skipped the vaccine altogether.

When is flu season?

Although associated mostly with colder months, the flu season can begin as early as September and last through May, with the largest number of cases between November and March.

Scientists closely monitor the different flu viruses each season, then formulate vaccines that protect against the previous year's strain and the one more likely to occur in the coming months.

"The flu is a serious illness that can be prevented."

Busting flu myths

Karina Eastman, MD at Cedars-Sinai

Karina Eastman, MD

What's the most common myth about the flu shot? People saying they know someone who got the flu from getting the vaccine, says pediatrician Dr. Karina Eastman.

"The flu shot is an inactivated vaccine that has some side effects like redness at the injection site, or a cough," she explains. "The flu brings different symptoms, including weakness, body aches, and severe fever."

The vaccine is safe and well-studied. It may prevent flu, or if someone who had the vaccine does get sick, their illness is likely to be milder than those without the vaccine's protection.

"The vaccine has shown to be 60% effective, and will reduce your symptoms if you do get sick," she says.

Even pregnant women and people with chronic medical conditions—such as asthma, diabetes, or a compromised immune system—are encouraged to get the shot.

Flu shots are for kids, too

Children who are 6 months old or older should have a flu shot at their doctor's office.

"Children under 6 months, especially if their mother is breastfeeding, will receive the antibodies from their mothers," Dr. Eastman says.

Kids under 8 who have not gotten a flu shot before or who have gotten only one dose of the vaccine in past years need 2 shots—at least a month apart—to get full immunity from the flu.

In Magazines: Vaccine Fast Facts

Not just a bad cold

Most people who get the flu recover. However, flu is responsible for thousands of hospital admissions and deaths.

"It's a serious illness that can be prevented," Dr. Eastman says. "Unfortunately, I've seen parents who lost a child to the influenza virus. It's heartbreaking. If your child attends a school that does not require vaccination, it's important to make sure your family is protected."

The vaccine is available from your doctor's office. If you choose to go to a pharmacy, make sure the vaccination is current and approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

In addition to vaccines, there are other common-sense means of preventing the spread of flu and other illnesses. Wash your hands often with water and soap. Disinfect shared spaces in your home and at your workplace.

If You Have Symptoms

Early detection is critical if you get the flu.

"A quick swab lets us know if you have the virus," says Dr. Eastman. "There are some antiviral medications like Tamiflu that can treat influenza, but they work best within 2-3 days of onset. The earlier we can treat it, the better. A flu shot will shorten the duration of the total illness to a few days. It's also important to stay home 24 hours after the symptoms subside, to ensure you don't spread the virus."

"It's important to stay home 24 hours after flu symptoms subside, to ensure you don't spread the virus."

Dr. Eastman assures that she's not recommending anything that she doesn't do herself: Doctors and nurses are rolling up their sleeves for the shot, too.

"As healthcare providers, we're obligated," says Dr. Eastman. "I get vaccinated every year."

Read more Flu Season Facts on the Cedars-Sinai website.