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Prevention

Options for heading off an attack of influenza have increased in recent years.

  • Vaccination Vaccination can reduce your chances of getting the flu and transmitting it to others. Vaccination each year is recommended for everyone aged 6 months and older.

Vaccination is particularly recommended for:

  • All children and adolescents aged 6 months to 18 years of age. This is especially true for those receiving long-term aspirin therapy. That is because children taking aspirin are at increased risk for experiencing a serious illness called Reye's syndrome if they get influenza infection.

  • All people older than 50 years

  • Women who are pregnant or will be pregnant during the influenza season

  • Adults and children who have disorders that affect their:

    • Lungs, including chronic lung disorders such as asthma

    • Heart

    • Kidney

    • Liver

    • Blood

    • Metabolism (including diabetes)

  • Adults and children whose immune systems are suppressed

  • Adults and children who have any condition that can:

    • Compromise lung function

    • Compromise the handling of respiratory secretions

    • Increase the risk for aspiration such as mental impairment, spinal cord injuries, seizure disorders, or other neuromuscular disorders.

  • Residents of nursing homes and other chronic-care facilities

  • Health-care personnel

  • Adults or children who are in close contact with:

    • Children younger than 5 years (especially children younger than 6 months)

    • Adults older than 50 years

  • Adults or children who are in close contact with people who have medical conditions that put them at higher risk for severe complications from influenza

For maximum effectiveness, doctors advise getting vaccinated at the start of flu season. This generally means October or November.

Other ways to protect yourself from getting the flu:

  • FluMist Healthy people between the ages of 2 and 49 have an alternative to the flu shot. FluMist is an intranasal vaccine spray. It appears to offer similar protection to the flu shot. FluMist uses a deactivated live virus rather than the killed virus in the shot. FluMist is not any more effective than the standard flu shot.

People at the highest risk for flu should still receive the injected vaccine. This includes people older than 49 and those with chronic health conditions.

  • Good hygiene The virus usually is passed through the air, by coughing. It also is passed by direct contact, such as shaking hands or kissing.

Practicing good hygiene can help you to avoid getting the flu or spreading it to others. Good hygiene includes covering your mouth when you cough and washing your hands frequently.

  • Antiviral drugs Zanamivir (Relenza) and oseltamivir (Tamiflu) can substantially reduce your chance of getting the flu if they are taken just before an expected outbreak.

Zanamivir is given by inhalation from a nebulizer. It is approved for prevention in people ages 5 and older and for treatment in people ages 7 and older.

Oseltamivir is available in tablet form. It is approved for prevention and treatment in patients older than one year.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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