By Dr. Huy Nguyen and Dr. Anita Barry

Every year, around October, we start bugging our patients, colleagues, friends, and loved ones. No, not about what presents we want for the holidays – about getting a flu vaccine.

This year, it’s important for everyone over the age of six months to get their vaccine – and if you haven’t done it yet, now is the time. By protecting yourself from the flu, you are also protecting your loved ones! Individuals who contract the flu virus may transmit the infection to family, friends, and colleagues even before they start to feel sick from the flu.

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The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control have reported significant increases in flu activity in the U.S. over the last three weeks, and in Boston, the Public Health Commission has noted a marked increase in cases in the last few weeks. This indicates an early flu season may be underway.

Getting vaccinated is the best protection against influenza. Each year, the current flu vaccine is produced to protect against the top three strains of influenza that are expected to be circulating in the community. Since the strains change each year and immunity from the previous year’s vaccine fades, you need to get a vaccine each year to be fully protected.

Certain groups who are at high risk for serious illness if they get influenza include pregnant women; children under 5 years old; adults over 65 years old; anyone with underlying health problems like heart disease, lung disease (including asthma), kidney disease, or morbid obesity. People who live with or care for those at high risk should be sure to get vaccinated to protect themselves and their contacts, as well.

To get a vaccine, talk to your primary care provider. Many pharmacies throughout the city can provide flu vaccine. The Boston Public Health Commission also maintains a calendar of free flu clinics in Boston. Visit bphc.org/flu or call 617-534-5050 to locate a clinic.

Besides getting the vaccine, there are several easy steps everyone should take to take to limit their exposure to the flu and to help everyone around them stay healthy, too.

  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue every time you cough or sneeze. Then throw the used tissue in a waste basket. If you don’t have a tissue, sneeze or cough into your upper sleeve.
  • Clean your hands often with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand cleaner.
  • Stay home when you are sick. It is recommended that you stay at home for 24 hours after your fever has gone away without the use of fever reducing medicines.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick, whenever possible.

Influenza, or the “flu,” is a contagious illness caused by the influenza virus that lives in the nose and throat, and is sprayed into the air when an infected person sneezes, coughs, or talks. You may experience a fever, cough, muscle aches, headache, runny nose, sore throat, and general weakness. Flu symptoms usually start one to three days after a person breathes in the virus, but it can take longer.

Protect yourself and your loved ones. Get a flu vaccine to make sure you receive the best gift of all this holiday season – good health!

Dr. Nguyen is the BPHC medical director, and Dr. Barry is the director of our Infectious Disease Bureau.

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