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Influenza, or also known as the flu, is a type of respiratory illness caused by the influenza virus. This illness affects the nose, the throat, and in some cases, even the lungs. It is a contagious disease that can bring mild to severe sickness but can also lead to death if serious complications, such as pneumonia, occur.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, seasonal flu viruses are actually present during the entire year in the United States. However, the viruses that cause this illness are most common during the seasons of fall and winter. During October, flu cases usually begin to increase, with the activity reaching its peak between December and February. In some cases, it can stretch even to as late as May.

For some people, especially those who are relatively healthy, getting the flu may be a minor inconvenience. Usually, they would begin to recover and feel better within a week or two. But others, especially the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, can fall very ill. This can happen when they develop another infection while their bodies are still busy fighting off the influenza viruses.

How does the flu spread?

As a very contagious disease, the flu can easily be passed from one person to another.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that people who are sick with flu can spread the viruses to people who are as far as 6 feet away. Experts say that the flu is spread primarily through droplets, when sick people sneeze, cough, or even talk. These droplets can easily land in the noses or in the mouths of people who are nearby.

Influenza viruses may also be passed when a person touches another person or an object, such as a book, a doorknob, or a countertop, where the flu virus is present. Once the person touches their face, especially the nose, mouths, or even the eyes, they can be infected with the flu.

How long is the period of contagiousness?

Even before a person sick with flu comes down with their symptoms, such as coughs, runny nose, body aches, and fever, they can already be contagious.

According to experts, people with influenza are most likely to spread the virus in the first three up to four days after they become sick. For many healthy adults, they can also infect others even up to 5 to 7 days after they become sick.

In some cases, flu symptoms will not immediately start after the virus enters the body. In fact, symptoms can show up at least 2 days after getting infected. This simply means that even before you become aware that you are sick—and while you are already aware that you have the flu—you may be passing the virus already to other people.

In the case of people with weak immune systems and young children, experts say that they may infect others with the influenza viruses for a much longer time.

Ways of stopping the spread of the flu

The easy and effective way of preventing seasonal flu is to receive flu vaccinations every year. Everyone who is 6 months old and above can get a flu shot, which will not only reduce the likelihood of contracting the flu but can also save lives, especially for young children.

There are other ways to help prevent the spread of flu, especially during the peak seasons:

  • Practice good hand hygiene. Washing your hands regularly with soap and water can help protect you and your family from illness-causing germs. To ensure its effectiveness, scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. An excellent way to remember this is to hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice. If there is no available soap and water, you can use alcohol-based hand rubs and sanitizers.
  • Avoid touching your face, especially your eyes, nose, and mouth. Since pathogens are usually spread when a healthy person touches an object where the viruses have landed, keeping your hands away from your face can help protect you from infections.
  • Cover your mouth and nose, especially when coughing or sneezing. If you have to cough or sneeze, cover your nose and mouth with a tissue. Once used, throw this in the proper garbage bin and wash your hands properly. If there is no tissue available, you can cough or sneeze into the inside of your elbow. These habits will protect others around you from getting sick, in case you may be infected.
  • If sick, stay at home and seek a physician if necessary. If you are sick, do your best to stay home and limit interactions with other people. On the other hand, if you have a family member who is ill, also limit the contact between them and other members of the family. Avoid sharing items, such as utensils, towels, and washcloths with the sick person to prevent the spread.

In case symptoms begin to worsen or do not go away, immediately consult a doctor for proper treatment.

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Joseph Chavez Carey, MD, FAAFP
By Joseph Chavez Carey, MD, FAAFP
Primary Care Medical Director, Garnet Health Doctors

Primary Care Medical Director Dr. Chavez Carey is Board-certified in Family Medicine. He received his medical degree from New York University School of Medicine and completed his internship and residency at Contra Costa Regional Medical Center in California. Dr. Chavez Carey sees patients of all ages – including kids – and is fluent in Spanish. He is a Castle Connolly 2018-2019 Top Doctor and was ranked as the 2018 Favorite Doc by Hudson Valley Parent.

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