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Precautions help prevent flu, colds
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Flu vaccines may be in short supply, but other preventive measures can protect people from this season's colds and flu.
While Mississippi's flu numbers remain moderate, the bordering states of Tennessee and Arkansas are among the nation's 13 states reporting widespread cases of influenza by December, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site. Health officials agree that the worst of the flu season is yet to come.
In light of an increased number of early-season flu deaths and reports of vaccine shortages, a Mississippi State University health education specialist is recommending individuals in the at-risk category attempt to find flu vaccines as soon as possible.
Jane Clary, associate Extension professor in MSU's School of Human Sciences, said supplies vary from one clinic or hospital to another. At-risk individuals who should have the vaccination include people over age 50, people with chronic conditions, babies between the ages of 6 months and 23 months, health care workers and others frequently in contact with those high-risk groups.
"More than 36,000 Americans die from the flu or its complications each year. Some victims are children and some are seniors, but it can affect people of all ages," Clary said. "Fortunately, most people who get the flu will have only a mild illness."
The CDC officials estimate 185 million people fall into the at-risk category, but the largest number of people to receive the vaccine in past years has been between 70 million and 75 million. For this year's flu season, manufacturers produced 83 million doses.
Influenza is an acute respiratory infection, and its symptoms usually include fever, aches, chills, weakness, loss of appetite, and aching of the head, back, arms and legs. In addition, a sore throat and dry cough, nausea and burning eyes may accompany the virus.
"Cold and flu symptoms are very similar. However, colds typically begin slowly with a sore, scratchy throat, sneezing and a runny nose. Young children may get a fever of up to 102 degrees. Adults and older children may have a mild or no fever," Clary said. "The flu usually begins with a sudden headache, muscle aches, severe fatigue and a fever of up to 104 degrees."
The health specialist said regardless of the vaccine's availability, people should follow good basic health practices to prevent illnesses such as colds and flu.
"Eating a well-balanced diet and getting plenty of rest and exercise are all good ways to enhance the body's ability to fight off germs," Clary said. "Wash hands frequently and avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth where germs frequently enter the body."
Clary said people often cannot judge the health of people around them or even their own condition. Adults typically are infectious from the day before symptoms begin to about five days after the illness begins. Children can be infectious for 10 or more days, and young children can pass the virus for up to six days before their illness begins.
"Do not share personal items such as drinking glasses, food utensils, cosmetics, combs and brushes, or medical equipment," Clary said. "It's impossible to avoid germs, but good health practices and cleaning practices will help significantly."
Rest and drinking lots of water are important for recovering from a cold or flu. People in the at-risk groups may want to consult their doctor for medicines that may reduce the symptoms. Treatment as soon as symptoms occur is important.
There are four antiviral medications on the market that may shorten the duration of the illness if patients begin taking them within 48 hours of their first symptoms. These medications do not actually cure the disease. Consult physicians as soon as flu symptoms are felt.