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    Infectious Diseases A–Z: Influenza widespread in the US

The seasonal flu virus has made a widespread appearance across the U.S., just in time for heavy holiday travel. Most flu illnesses are being caused by the influenza B virus, which is unusual for this time of year, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). To date, more than 3.7 million illnesses and 1,800 deaths have been attributed to the flu this season.

"If you have not received your flu vaccine, do it now," says Dr. Gregory Poland, director of the Mayo Clinic Vaccine Research Group. Everyone 6 months and older should get a flu vaccine each season."

Most people who get sick with the flu recover on their own. However, complications from the flu can lead to hospitalization and even death. For high-risk patients, including those over 65, young children, diabetics and those with a compromised immune system, taking an antiviral medication quickly is important.

Watch: Dr. Gregory Poland talks about flu antiviral medication.

"If you develop symptoms of influenza, and you're elderly or have medical problems, we now have a drug where we can administer one dose and treat this virus very effectively if you get in to be seen within 48 hours of developing symptoms," says Dr. Poland. Antiviral medications are prescribed by a health care provider.

When taken within two days of becoming sick, these medications can lessen flu symptoms and shorten the duration of the illness. An antiviral medication is not a substitute for your yearly flu shot. Rather, it's considered a second line of defense.

Vaccination is the best protection against influenza. Beyond vaccination, here are some ways to prevent the spread of germs:

  • Wash your hands with warm soap and water frequently.
  • Avoid touching your face.
  • Avoid contact with people who are sick.
  • Stay home when sick.
  • Cough or sneeze into your elbow or cover your mouth and nose with a tissue.

It takes up to two weeks for the flu vaccine to work. The CDC says that you can help prevent the spread of infection by not traveling while you are sick with flu-like symptoms, including fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headache, and fatigue.

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