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Oliver: Flu off to a fast start. What you can do

The sniffling season surely is upon us.

Maybe you’ve noticed the growing number of people who are sneezing, coughing and croaking.

And it’s not just the common cold; influenza is back, too.

Last week, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came out with its outlook for the flu season, which usually begins in October and runs through May, with a peak in January.

The season is off to its earliest start in nearly a decade and is shaping up to be a bad one, the CDC reports.

The McHenry County Department of Health also is seeing the season starting earlier than last year, spokeswoman Debra Quackenbush said.

The last time a flu season started this early was in 2003-04, according to an Associated Press report. That season saw more than 48,000 deaths, making it one of the deadliest in 35 years. In an average year, there are 24,000 flu-related deaths.

The main influenza strain then is the same one the CDC is seeing now. The good news is, the vaccine that’s out now is better matched to it than it was in 2003-04.

So we have that going for us. And more people are heeding the CDC’s plea to get vaccinated.

At an event last week, Gov. Pat Quinn and Department of Public Health Director Dr. Lamar Hasbrouck got their flu shots and urged the rest of us to do the same.

In fact, health officials say just about everyone should get a flu shot each year. The only exceptions are infants younger than 6 months and people who are allergic to the vaccine.

So how do you know that it’s the flu and not just a bad cold?

The symptoms of flu are a fever or feeling feverish with chills, a cough, a sore throat, a runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches and fatigue. Some people, most often children, have vomiting and diarrhea. But not everyone with the flu will have a fever.

The cold and flu do share a lot of similar symptoms.

The flu, however, is more intense, and people with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose, according to the CDC.

Colds also do not usually lead to more serious health problems, such as pneumonia and bacterial infections, or hospitalization.

That’s another reason health officials are so adamant that everyone get a flu shot.

So besides a shot, what else can we do to avoid the flu?

The CDC recommends avoiding close contact with those who are sick; staying home when we’re sick; covering the mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing; washing hands; avoiding touching eyes, nose or mouth; and practicing other good health habits, such as getting plenty of sleep, being physically active, managing stress, drinking plenty of fluids and eating nutritious food.

Of course, that sounds like good advice for any number of illnesses likely to arise this winter.

Let’s stay healthy out there.

• Joan Oliver is the assistant news editor for the Northwest Herald. She can be reached at 815-526-4552 or by email at joliver@shawmedia.com.

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