WATERBURY, Conn.—It might start as a little scratch in the back of your throat, a tickle in your eye, or maybe just a few sneezes. But when you wake up the next morning, you feel like you've been hit by a bus.
Along with the colder air and falling leaves, a sure sign of autumn is the arrival of flu season.
And while medical professionals say little has changed in the flu strains and their vaccines since last year, they caution the threat of influenza is still nothing to sneeze at.
"What people don't realize is when you get the flu -- especially people with other health conditions, or in group homes, or with underlying chronic disease -- they often get complications like pneumonia and other things," said Leslie Polito, assistant director of the Torrington Area Health District. "By preventing the flu, we can prevent these complications. It makes sense to prevent it rather than fix it once you get it, in my book."
"It is the No. One thing you can do to prevent influenza for everyone 6 months old and over," she said.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the many strains of the influenza virus infect the respiratory system, causing symptoms like cough, sore throat, congestion, body aches, headaches, fatigue and sometimes fever.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's spread when someone with the flu coughs, sneezes or even just talks near you and an infected droplet of spit or mucous lands in your mouth or nose.
Although that may sound incredibly rude of some people, the CDC points out that the virus can be passed on a full day before the host even knows they are sick in the first place, and for a week after symptoms develop. Kids can pass it on for an even longer period.
You can also catch it by touching something with the virus on it and then touching your mouth or eyes.
Once you're sick, there's little you can do, experts said. Rest, plenty of fluids and relief medications like decongestants and pain relievers are the best treatment while the virus runs its course.
For some, risks of the flu go beyond the uncomfortable symptoms and used-up sick days.
"It can do bad things to everybody, but it's an especially risky infection for the elderly and immuno-compromised people," said Dr. Steven Aronin, chief of infectious diseases at Waterbury Hospital, where he cares for 500 AIDS patients and makes sure they are vaccinated against the flu. "Patients with HIV and AIDS certainly have their immune systems compromised. If they do get the flu, they can die from it."
When the immune system is already compromised, he said, the flu can cause deadly staph or strep infections.
"What happens is, if the immune system is not able to keep it in check, the patient can get a bacterial superinfection in the lungs," he said. "It's too much for immuno-compromised patient to handle and they die of respiratory failure from the flu."
The elderly are also at risk, he said. In fact, a new, stronger vaccine for the sick and elderly was released last year and is more widely available this year. Polito said the stronger vaccine has more antigen, because the bodies of senior citizens sometimes don't respond well enough to the regular dose.
Marie Gallerani, a pharmacist for
Even though they're the same ones as last year, Gallerani said last year's shot likely won't be effective now. People should get immunized again, she said.
Having already had the flu doesn't excuse you from getting the shot, either.
"There's three different strains in the vaccine; when you get sick, you're only going to get one. The flu shot will offer protection against the other two," she said. "Getting the flu shot can save you a lot of hassle. Having a sore arm for a day certainly beats being sick for a week and possibly ending up with other problems from getting the flu."
The CDC had no information on when the flu season begins, but mentioned it tends to peak around January.
Rite Aid and other chain pharmacies began offering shots as early as August.
"They had all the pharmacists attend a daylong class where they go over all the safety techniques, what to do in case there's an emergency," Gallerani said. "Then we practiced on each other and we also had to do CPR training."
Mike DeAngelis, spokesman for the CVS chain, said the company got into the immunization business a few years ago, when the federal government relaxed laws to allow people easier access to the H1N1 vaccine.
"The most effective way the government found they could make this vaccine available was utilize retail pharmacists," he said. "They are the most accessible health care providers in the community."