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The Flu Virus: What You Should Know About It And How You Can Prevent It

This should make you run to get the flu shot, ASAP.
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"We still want to remind people that the flu season is coming and you have to get your flu shot before the season starts, ideally, because it takes your body two weeks to develop immunity," Dr. Genevieve Cadieux, associate medical officer of health at Ottawa Public Health, told the Ottawa Citizen.

According to the Citizen, there were 617 confirmed cases of the flu in Ottawa last year. To date, 5,365 hospitalizations have been reported from participating provinces and territories for the 2015-2016 influenza season, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

While vaccines have been about 42 per cent effective during the past two flu seasons, it's still important to get the flu shot to protect yourself and those you come in close contact with.

"Even if it turns out to be only effective in 50 per cent of cases, that means you have a one in two chance that you won't get (the flu). Versus if you don't get the vaccine and you encounter the flu virus, you have 100 per cent chance you are going to get it, or just about. So the vaccine is still your best protection against the flu," Cadieux noted.

Still not sure whether you should get the flu shot? Well, let us teach you about the flu virus — maybe that will change your mind.

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So, what is the flu?

Influenza (the flu) is a contagious respiratory illness caused by flu viruses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Different than the common cold, the flu usually comes on suddenly, and can cause mild to severe illness. In some cases, it can lead to death.

How do you get it?

The flu is contagious, and people who have it can spread it to others up to about six feet away, notes the CDC. Experts believe the viruses are spread by droplets made when people with the flu cough, sneeze, or talk. When these droplets land in the mouths or noses of people, or are inhaled, people can contract the flu.

It's also possible to get the flu just by touching an object that has the flu virus on it and then touching your nose or mouth. (Which is why it's so important to wash your hands frequently.)

Because someone who has the flu can infect people the day before symptoms start to show, it's easy to pass it along to other people because you probably don't even know you're sick. Those with the flu can also infect other people up to five to seven days after becoming sick.

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Who gets affected?

Anyone at any age can get the flu, but seniors (people over the age of 55-60), people with a compromised immune system, children, and pregnant women are more susceptible to catching the flu.

What are the symptoms?

People who have the flu will display some or all of the following symptoms, according to the CDC:

  • Fever or chills (but not everyone who has the flu has a fever)
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Body aches
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting and diarrhea, although this is more common in children

Flu versus cold

Although it seems like the flu and cold are one and the same as they have similar symptoms, the flu can lead to much more serious health issues, notes the government of Ontario's website.

Unlike the flu, you don't run a fever or feel fatigued (most of the time) when you have a cold. While getting the flu can lead to pneumonia and respiratory failure, worsen a respiratory condition, or endanger your life, the only issues that can arise from having a cold include sinus congestion or earaches.

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How can you prevent it?

We've said it before and we'll say it again: Wash. Your. Hands. Frequently. Sounds simple, because it is: washing your hands with soap and water for at least 15 seconds helps prevent the spread of the virus, which can live on your hands for up to three hours. Which brings us to our next point: Don't touch your face and mouth. Remember how we talked about those droplets? Yeah, don't help them get inside you.

The other most important thing to remember is to cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. This helps prevent the spread of the virus, should you already have it. You don't want to make the whole office sick, do you? And if you're at the office, make it a habit to clean surfaces that you've used. That way, if you do have the virus (but aren't showing symptoms), you're not passing it along to your colleagues.

Finally, if you are sick, do your colleagues a favour and stay at home. Use those sick days and get lots of rest.

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How do you treat it?

If you have the flu, there's no better treatment than staying at home and resting. (It's a great excuse to binge-watch "Stranger Things 2" for the second time!)

The Ontario government recommends drinking plenty of fluids (water, preferably, and no caffeine or alcohol), using a hot water bottle or heating pad to soothe aching muscles, taking a warm bath, sucking on lozenges to soothe the throat, or using spray for a stuffed up nose.

If you want to take a pain reliever, talk to your doctor first so they can recommend the best over-the-counter medication for you.

When should you see your doctor?

Speaking of your doc... if, after a few days you aren't feeling better, your symptoms get worse, or you're in a high-risk group (senior, pregnant, child, already have respiratory problems) make an appointment to see your physician as soon as possible.

Who should get the flu shot?

Everyone over the age of six months should get the flu shot but there are certain groups of people who should absolutely get it because they're more at risk of running into health complications should they contract the virus: seniors, people with a compromised immune system, children, and pregnant women.

Not only are these people more susceptible to catching the flu, but the effects can be a lot worse.

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"As you age, once you get past a certain point your immune system starts to go down. So seniors are more susceptible — anyone over the age of 55 or 60 should, no question, get the flu shot. That's the issue with both children and seniors — if you get the flu it can be far worse because of your decreased immune system," Adam Somers, pharmacist at the Almon Street Shoppers Drug Mart in Halifax, told the Halifax Citizen.

Somers also notes that it's safe for pregnant women to get the shot.

"I always tell people not only can you get it, you are supposed to get it. It's very important for their immune system, but also for the developing baby. It's highly recommended by all medical officers," he said.

Where to get the flu shot

Most pharmacies, walk-in clinics, and your doctor will offer it. Type in your address or city here to find participating pharmacies across Canada.

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Misconceptions about the flu shot

First, the flu shot cannot give you the flu virus. At most, people who get the flu shot will experience soreness, redness, tenderness, or swelling at the injection site, notes the CDC. Other side effects include low-grade fever, headache and muscle aches.

Second, even if you get the flu shot once, that doesn't mean you're covered for the rest of your life. You must get the flu shot every year before flu season starts even if the viruses haven't changed.

"The reason for this is that a person's immune protection from vaccination declines over time, so an annual vaccination is needed to get the 'optimal' or best protection against the flu," notes the CDC.

Last, even if you're a healthy adult, you should still get the flu shot. The flu virus can hit anyone, no matter what state their health is. And think of it this way: you're not just protecting yourself, you're protecting others by not transmitting it.

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