Experiencing a fever, aching, chills and sweats? Cough, sore throat, and congestion? Fatigue and just generally feeling crummy? Then you may be suffering from the flu.
What is flu season and when does it occur?
The flu is an unpredictable beast, and flu viruses can circulate year round or even vary from season to season in different parts of the country. But in the U.S., the epidemic of seasonal flu that occurs during fall and winter months — when flu viruses are most common — is called flu season. When exactly flu activity starts, peaks, and ends can vary a bit from year to year, but it’s most common for flu activity to start to increase in October and November, peak between December and February, and last on even into May. That’s several months of sneezing!
Flu viruses change all the time, and oftentimes new flu viruses appear each year. So it’s hard to predict just what a flu season will be like in any given year — when exactly it will start, how severe it will be, and even how effective flu vaccinations will be. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) keep an eye on certain indicators of the flu — like outpatient visits for flu-like illnesses, lab tests, and flu hospitalizations — and when such indicators are elevated for a certain number of weeks in a row, then it can be said that the dreaded flu season has officially begun.
How can you keep from catching the flu and help prevent the spread of the flu?
Even if you can’t avoid being around other people from October to May, you can still take some measures to protect yourself and avoid catching the flu.
Getting a flu shot — and encouraging your loved ones to do the same — is one big step in the right direction. The CDC recommends that everyone 6 months of age and older get a flu vaccine, especially people who are at high risk of experiencing flu complications, including young children, pregnant people, and older adults. It’s recommended that you get vaccinated before flu season starts, since it takes about two weeks after you get the vaccination for you to be fully protected. The flu vaccine you get will have been created to protect you from the flu strains that will likely circulate in that particular year, but there is always a chance that it won’t be a great match or that you catch the flu anyway.
Nonetheless, it’s better to get vaccinated than to not, and the more people who get vaccinated, the better; “herd immunity” is a term used to describe the concept of a large number of people in a community being vaccinated against a certain disease, which prevents the spread of those germs through a community and helps to protect people who just can’t be vaccinated themselves — like very young babies, those with serious allergies, or people with weakened immune systems.
Other important steps you can take to avoid catching the flu include staying away from people who are sick and washing your hands to help reduce icky germs being spread. And if you do happen to catch the flu, it’s important that you don’t help to further spread flu germs to other — so it’s worth it to stay home if you are sick and to regularly cover your mouth and nose if you cough or sneeze.
These simple actions can make a big difference in helping to keep you — and those around you — from getting the flu.
- Mayo Clinic Staff. “Flu shot: Your best bet for avoiding influenza.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, September 19 2017. Retrieved December 15 2017. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/flu/in-depth/flu-shots/art-20048000.
- Mayo Clinic Staff. “Influenza (flu).” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, October 5 2017. Retrieved December 15 2017. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/flu/in-depth/flu-shots/art-20048000.
- “Frequently Asked Flu Questions 2017-2018 Influenza Season.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, December 7 2017. Retrieved December 15 2017. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/season/flu-season-2017-2018.htm.
- “Vaccines protect your community.” vaccines.gov. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, December 2017. Retrieved December 15 2017. https://www.vaccines.gov/basics/work/protection/index.html.