This year, thousands of Ontarians will get influenza (the flu). The flu can be serious and can spread before symptoms, like chills and fever, start showing. That means you can infect your family and friends even before you start to feel sick.
As the colder weather sets in and we start to spend more time indoors and in closer proximity to one another, the risk of influenza increases. It's essential that parents make sure the whole family is prepared and protected for flu season by getting the flu shot.
Here are five things you should know about the flu so you can stay healthy and protected this season.
The flu is not a bad cold.
Unlike a case of the common cold, the flu can lead to serious problems such as ear infections or, more seriously, pneumonia or dehydration which, in severe situations, can result in hospitalization. Influenza and pneumonia are ranked among the top 10 leading causes of death in Canada.
Though the flu and a cold have some common symptoms, the symptoms of the flu are more severe.
Know the difference between a cold and the flu?
*It's important to note that not everyone with the flu will have a fever.
The only way to catch the flu is by being exposed to the influenza virus, typically from a cough, sneezing, talking or even from contaminated hands and surfaces. You cannot catch the flu from going outside without a coat or with wet hair.
The flu virus changes year to year.
The influenza viruses evolve and can change every year, so getting vaccinated each year is important to make sure you're protected. The immunity the flu vaccine provides declines over time, so an annual vaccination is needed to get the best protection against the flu.
Children under five are at higher risk.
Young kids love to touch everything they encounter, which makes picking up or passing on the flu virus incredibly easy within this age group. Kids spread more of the flu virus because there's more virus in their mucous secretions. That means when they cough or sneeze (especially when they forget to sneeze into their elbow), more of the virus is being released for others to pick up.
Infants and toddlers are especially vulnerable to complications from the flu because their immune systems are still developing. These children under the age of two are more prone to blockage, impacting their ability to breathe with ease, during infection because their airways are smaller. Kids with medical conditions such as asthma are at higher risk of flu-related complications.
The virus lives longer than you think.
The flu virus can spread up to six feet (two metres) with just one sneeze and can live for up to eight hours on surfaces that kids commonly touch such as toys, books, door handles and desks. This puts their family members and their community at risk of getting the flu. You can be contagious and start spreading the flu virus up to a day before symptoms appear, so it may not be easy to avoid contact with those infected.
Washing hands with soap and warm water, or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer and coughing and sneezing into sleeves are good practices, but you can't always protect yourself from others and very young kids often haven't mastered this habit. Getting the flu shot early is your family's best defence against the flu. In Ontario, the flu season is at its peak in late fall and during the winter months.
Getting the flu shot is easy.
The flu shot is available now. In Ontario, there are a number of places for your family to get the flu shot including your health care provider, local public health unit, community clinics and in more than 2,400 pharmacies across the province. Kids under five can only get the flu shot from their health care provider, so book appointments before the worst of flu season hits.
Ontario's flu shot program has been running for 18 years and has helped to reduce flu-related deaths and hospital/doctor visits dramatically. The flu vaccine is a safe and highly effective way of protecting your kids, your family and the entire community from the spread of influenza. For more information, visit ontario.ca/flu.
Dr. David Williams is Ontario's chief medical officer of health.
Also on HuffPost: