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Your Guide to Treating and Preventing the Flu

By Kate Morin
January 22, 2014; 11:03 AM ET

Cover your mouth, disinfect your hands, and hide your children! The 2014 Flu season has begun. While the ubiquitous (and perhaps dreaded) flu shot is the best way to prevent getting sick, no one is completely immune. So it's important for everyone to be well-informed and ready to fight off the plague... err, flu.

Serious InFLUence - The Need-to-Know

The sickness we all know by one term - "the flu" - can actually be caused by a number of different virus strains, each with their own specific traits. This year's most prominent strain (so far) is called H1N1, also known as "swine flu" - the same strain that caused a serious flu pandemic back in 2009. Luckily, this year's flu vaccine was formulated to protect against three strains of the flu virus, including H1N1-like viruses (as well as viruses resembling last year's strain, H3N2).

Afraid you've been infected? Flu symptoms typically include: fever (or just feeling feverish or having chills), cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, fatigue, vomiting, and diarrhea (more common in children). Unfortunately, feeling fine doesn't necessarily mean you're in the clear (and neither is everyone around you). Experts warn it's actually possible for a person to pass the flu to someone else before even knowing they're sick! The infectious period typically begins one day before a person starts feeling sniffly and lasts up to a week after they've started showing symptoms.

Victory Over Virus - Your Action Plan

Whether you're already sniffling or just want to prevent yourself from getting sick, here are our science-backed tips to help you stay healthy this flu season.

CDC's map of influenza infections for the week of January 11, 2014.

To Prevent Infection

1. Get a flu shot, and get it now.

The CDC recommends everyone older than 6 months get a flu vaccine, and particularly people older than 65, pregnant women, or anyone with asthma, emphysema, or chronic lung disease (i.e., those at a higher risk of complications if infected). Effectiveness varies, though typically those who recieve the vaccine are about 60 percent less likely to need treatment for the flu later on. The flu shot can be found at many pharmacies or at the doctor's offices, and it's not too late to take it: The CDC says that people can (and should) get vaccinated as long as flu viruses are circulating (as early as October, and as late as May), but it takes about two weeks after recieving the vaccination for it to provide protection against the flu.

2. Get some shut-eye.

Studies suggest even a few days of not getting enough sleep can weaken the immune system [1]. Get those seven to nine hours a night to keep that army of antibodies as strong as can be!

3. Stay away from sick people.

(And stay away from healthy people if you're sick.) Most experts believe the flu is spread mainly by little particles released into the air when infected people cough, sneeze, or even just talk. The particles can land in the mouth or nose of a healthy person and infect them, too.

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