Here's this season's best health tip: Get a flu shot

In the quest for good health, Americans spend $50 billion a year on weight-loss products, $30 billion a year on vitamins and $19 billion a year on gym memberships.

But I have a tip for getting the most bang for the buck in protecting your health: Get a flu shot. It's readily available at your doctor's office, pharmacy or even your workplace; it's quick and relatively painless; and it's low- or no-cost for most people.

It's a no-brainer, right?

But unfortunately, only about half of all Americans get a flu shot. That's why the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has designated this week at National Influenza Vaccination Week. We want you to know that the flu vaccine is the best way -- and most affordable, I would wager -- to protect your health this winter.

The flu is a respiratory illness. It's a virus, so it can be spread from one person to the next. For some people, the flu can be relatively mild but for others, especially senior citizens and those with existing health issues, the flu can be serious and even deadly. In an average year, an estimated 36,000 people in the United States die of the flu.

It doesn't have to be that way, and that's one of the things that really frustrate me as a nurse. Get a flu shot, people! That simple shot in the arm can reduce illness, doctor visits, hospitalizations and missed work and school. It also can protect your family and other people around you. That's especially important if you're around babies and young children, senior citizens and people with chronic health conditions.

Every flu season is different, so it's hard to say what this winter has in store for us. But each year the flu shot is updated to match the expected strains of flu. That's why you need to get the shot every year -- to help your immune system target whatever nasty bug is circulating.

We're already seeing flu cases in New Jersey, so get the shot now. It takes about two weeks after vaccination for those antibodies to start working their way through your body and giving you protection. The flu season can last into the spring, so you're not too late to get the shot.

OK, so you've gone to your local drug store, doctor's office or clinic, and you got the flu shot. Yes! But what else can you do to protect yourself and the people around you from getting sick this winter?

These strategies will help:

  • Cover your coughs and sneezes, and throw out used tissues.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and warm water. Here's a tip: Sing "Happy Birthday" twice as you wash. That's how long it takes to effectively scrub away germs.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Those are germs' favorite places to invade.
  • If you're sick, stay home from work or school and give yourself a day or two on the couch. You need the rest, and you don't want to get other people sick.

Following the above strategies will improve your chances for a flu-free season. But if you do get the flu, talk to your doctor or nurse practitioner about antiviral drugs. Antibiotics won't help with a virus, but antiviral drugs can lessen the symptoms and get you back on your feet faster.

Shannon Davila, RN, is director of the Institute for Quality and Patient Safety at the New Jersey Hospital Association. NJHA is a healthcare trade organization committed to helping its members deliver high-value healthcare in their communities.

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Shannon Davila, RN, MSN, is the director of the Institute for Quality and Patient Safety at NJHA. She leads clinical improvement programs under the Partnership for Patients initiative. An infection prevention specialist, Davila was named a 2016 Hero of Infection Prevention by the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology.

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