How to Avoid the Flu

How can you dodge the flu? Dr. Zachary Levine says conventional wisdom is still the best prevention.

Q: I caught the flu last year and had to stay in hospital for three days. How can I prevent catching it?

A Dr. Zachary Levine: The flu is a contagious illness caused by the influenza virus. It is characterized by fever, cough and nasal congestion. Other symptoms include sore throat, headache, muscle aches and fatigue. Symptoms typically start one to two days after transmission and usually lasts six to 10 days. The flu “season,” when there is a higher incidence of the illness, runs from November to April.

The flu is a serious illness. If you do have concerning symptoms, see your doctor, especially if you are experiencing shortness of breath or inability to stay hydrated. Often, the treatment is just staying home, treating the symptoms and resting, but sometimes oral antiviral medications are used, and occasionally hospitalization is necessary. While most people do recover completely, Statistics Canada says 8,030 people die as a result of the flu and pneumonia each year in Canada.

Conventional wisdom is still the best prevention. There are two vaccines available – one given by injection and one via nasal spray. It is best to be vaccinated as early as possible after the vaccine is available as it takes one to two weeks to produce immunity. Every year, the vaccine is reformulated to protect from the most common types of flu that season. It is especially important for young children, adults 65-plus and people with chronic medical conditions to be vaccinated.

Washing your hands regularly, covering your mouth when coughing, avoiding putting your hands in eyes, mouth and nose, avoiding close contact with those who have it and staying home if infected are tried-but-true preventatives.

Dr. Zachary Levine is an attending physician in the department of emergency medicine at the McGill University Health Centre in Montreal.