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The coughing. The sneezing. The sore throat. The stuffy nose … then the runny nose. Flu season is here and based on last year’s season, health officials are asking individuals to be vigilant in their health and take the necessary precautions. Typically flu season spans October through May, peaking in January or February in Indiana.

Although much attention is spent on influenza or the flu, people should note that the common cold and flu are both respiratory illnesses, but are caused by different viruses. In general, the flu is worse than a cold, and symptoms such as fever, body aches, extreme tiredness, and dry cough are more common and intense.

The flu can also cause nausea, vomiting or diarrhea and can lead to pneumonia. Colds are usually milder than the flu.

Health officials are unsure how severe this year’s flu season will be and ask that everyone get a flu shot, which is currently available.

“In our old strain of influenza, it typically attacked the very young and the elderly. But H1N1 was so different that it didn’t matter what your age was – it attacked equally,” said Dr. Virginia Caine, director of the Marion County Public Health Department.

Shawn Richards, respiratory epidemiologist for the Indiana State Department of Health says that HIN1 is circulating but is no longer considered a pandemic. H1N1 is now considered a part of the normal seasonal flu. A strain called Influenza B is currently circulating among long term care facilities.

“There will be an ample supply of flu vaccine this season. We recommend everyone over six months of age get the seasonal flu vaccine annually,” said Wayne Fischer, director of the immunization program for the Indiana State Department of Health. Asthmatics, college students or those in close quarters are strongly encouraged to get vaccinated.

The Marion County Health Department said unlike last year, when two flu shots were required, only one flu vaccine will be needed this year. Young children who did not receive two flu shots last year will be required to have two vaccines this year. Free vaccines are available for kids who are in need.

It is difficult to decipher influenza from H1N1 so the ill should seek medical attention as soon as possible. Caine warns that children and teens that appear to have flu-like symptoms should not be given aspirin.

In addition to the H1N1 and Influenza B Bizbane 2010 seasonal flu strains, there’s a new subtype of flu that causes more severe illness than H1N1 called H3N2 or Influenza A/Perth.

Richards said in states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Minnesota and Ohio, there has been significant H3N2 influenza circulating. Thus far, there hasn’t been any positive cases in Indiana, but Richards anticipates it to arrive.

The overall impact from flu varies from year to year, therefore health experts are unable to predict what’s going to happen. Also, influenza is not a reportable disease, therefore the state doesn’t have numbers on how many cases of influenza there are.

The state health department does have the Sentinel Surveillance System, comprised of a group of physicians that records information and reports weekly to the department, but those numbers aren’t a true representation of the population. There are only hard numbers on influenza deaths.

“If you get your flu shots, you will have a much milder flu season than if you don’t,” said Dr. Joan Duwve, medical director of the Indiana State Department of Health.

People should remember that acquiring a cold or flu is spread by person to person contact. To help stave off germs, Caine said in addition to getting a flu shot, people should wash their hands frequently with soap and water, especially when you’ve been out in public or have been coughing or sneezing.

People also can use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Keep a tissue handy if you have to cough or sneeze or as a last result, use the bend of your elbow. Those who have chronic diseases such as diabetes or asthma, should avoid people who appear to be ill.

“It doesn’t hurt to wipe down common areas in your house with diluted bleach. Try to do that on a weekly basis to cut down on viruses in your home,” said Caine.

For more information, call the Indiana State Department of Health at (317) 233-1325 or visit www.in.gov/isdh; the Marion County Health Department at (317) 221-2122 or visit www.mchd.com.

You can e-mail comments to Jessica Williams-Gibson at Jessica-recorder@indy.rr.com.

Harvest of Health Fair

On Oct. 30 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., the Cottage Corner Health Center, 1434 S. Shelby St., and other community organizations will partner to present the 15th annual Harvest of Health. A comprehensive team of health care professionals will be on hand to answer questions and administer free health screenings and flu shots for children ages 9 to 17 and adults of all ages.

Health screenings provided at no cost include blood pressure, dental and depression. There also will be information about health insurance programs and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program.

For more information about Harvest of Health, call Cottage Corner Health Center at (317) 655-3200.

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