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Saman Azadbakht/the Gauntlet

Online Exclusive: Evade the flu before it gets you

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Influenza is a common and frequently mislabeled sickness, and with flu season quickly approaching in early to mid December many health professionals are trying to educate and inform the public about this disease.

Often confused with the average cold or various gastrointestinal ailments, influenza is most commonly characterized by a high fever and relatively extensive cough as well as neck and body aches.

Although the illness is not air-borne, unlike the related tuberculosis and chicken pox, its transmission is easier than many think. The flu is mostly spread through direct contact-including, but not limited to, handshakes, hugs and kisses-in addition to droplet transmission, when the virus is suspended in liquid that can be expelled from an infected person by coughing or sneezing. The droplets of liquid spew into a metre-wide cloud of possible infection that can settle on nearby objects, leaving potentially-infectious virus for several hours.

"Common sense can be taken with precautions," said Dr. Jim Kellner, a pediatrician and infectious diseases expert at the University of Calgary. "[An ill person] should avoid social events. After extensive coughing fits, people should definitely wash their hands."

Along with the obvious prevention steps, the flu shot is becoming an increasingly popular option. The vaccine this year exactly or very closely matches the current strain of influenza affecting the general public. High-risk groups and potential transmitters, including adults aged 65 years and older, those with chronic medical conditions, diabetes, MS or compromised immune system, children aged six to 23 months, health-care workers, household contacts of high-risk group members and pregnant women in the third trimester can receive the shot free of charge, while the vaccine is available to the general public for $25 a pop.

Dr. Kellner recommends those already infected turn their face into their elbow while coughing to reduce the amount of droplets allowed to settle on surfaces.

While the symptoms of influenza can be debilitating and unpleasant, Kellner cautions that rushing to the hospital at the first sign of illness can be premature. Providers of flu drugs such as Tamiflu and Relenza encourage immediate treatment within 48 hours of contraction, but it is reported that they produce only modest results.

"Tamiflu was in short supply last year, but there is currently a lot of Relenza," Kellner said. "While that is an option for flu sufferers, I wouldn't necessarily endorse it as a first choice."

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