Health column: Here comes the flu

Each winter, millions of people suffer from the flu, a highly contagious infection. It spreads easily from person to person, mainly when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Viruses that infect the nose, throat, and lungs cause the flu, which is the short name for influenza. The illness is usually a mild disease in healthy children, young adults and middle-aged people. However, it can be life-threatening in older adults and in people of any age who have chronic illnesses such as diabetes or heart, lung or kidney diseases.

The flu is a respiratory infection caused by a variety of flu viruses. It differs in several ways from the common cold, which is a respiratory infection that is also caused by viruses. For example, people with colds rarely get fevers or headaches or suffer from the extreme exhaustion that the flu viruses can cause. Still, it’s easy to confuse a common cold with flu symptoms, but cold symptoms are usually milder and don’t last as long as flu symptoms.

If you become infected with the flu virus, you will usually feel symptoms one to four days later. It’s important to note that you can spread the flu to others before your flu symptoms start and for another three to four days after your flu symptoms appear.

Influenza usually starts suddenly and may include the following symptoms: fever, chills, a dry cough, sore throat, runny or stuffed nose, headache, muscle aches and extreme fatigue.

If you develop flu-like symptoms and are concerned about your illness, especially if are at high risk for complications from the flu, consult your health care provider. Those at high risk for complications include people 65 years or older, people with chronic medical conditions, such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease, pregnant women and young children.

In some people, the flu can cause serious complications, including bacterial pneumonia, dehydration and worsening of chronic medical conditions, such as congestive heart failure, asthma or diabetes. Children and adults may also develop sinus problems and ear infections.

The flu usually spreads from person to person in respiratory droplets when people who are infected cough or sneeze. People occasionally may become infected by touching something with influenza virus on it and then touching their mouth, nose or eyes.

The single best way to protect yourself and others from the flu is to get a flu vaccination each year. Yearly flu vaccinations should start being offered in September or as soon as vaccine is available and continue throughout the influenza season, into December, January and beyond. That’s because the timing and duration of influenza seasons vary. While influenza outbreaks can happen as early as October, most of the time influenza activity peaks in January or later.

You can be your own best defense against germs that cause cold and flu. Wash your hands frequently with soap and hot water to help prevent the spread of infection. Waterless hand cleansers are also highly recommended, especially while traveling.

Avoiding stress, getting plenty of rest, exercising and eating properly are all crucial to assist in boosting your immune system, so that you will be less susceptible to viruses. Be considerate of others. If you suspect you have the flu, you can reduce the transmission of disease by staying home and taking care of yourself or by seeking medical treatment.

Dr. Lloyd Simon is board certified in internal medicine and addiction medicine and serves as the medical director for Eastern Long Island Hospital.