By Charlie Reed

For the News-Gazette

Stay ahead of flu season and get vaccinated now, say Florida health officials.

A recent wave of flu is among the first signs that it’s getting to be that time of year again.

While winters in the Sunshine State are mild, flu season here is not. The “season” can start as early as October and go as late as May.

Influenza is a contagious viral infection of the nose, throat and lungs and is most commonly treated with prescription anti-viral medication. But preventing the disease in the first place, is the first line of protection.

Yep, that means getting a “flu shot,” which essentially is a dose of the inactive, or killed, virus given with a needle, usually in the arm. The flu shot is approved for use in people older than 6 months, including healthy people and people with chronic medical conditions.

The Florida Department of Health encourages all residents to get an annual vaccination in the fall, but particularly vulnerable populations, namely children, seniors, pregnant women and people who already are sick or are in poor health.

About two weeks after vaccination, antibodies that protect against influenza virus infection develop in the body. The flu vaccine is the best way to prevent infection, but a new round of vaccination is needed annually because the viruses change from year to year, according to the Flu-Free Florida website managed by the state.

Most flu is manageable, but a high-risk population is susceptible to the worst-case scenarios including hospitalization and even death.

By January last year, a 7-year-old and 17-year-old in Florida had died from flu, and emergency room visits for influenza are increasing in these high-risk groups, according to the state.

The best way to protect both high-risk and low-risk groups is for everyone to get vaccinated against this year’s most common strains of the flu virus. Flu shots are readily available at doctor’s offices, walk-in clinics, local health departments and pharmacy stores.

When more people get vaccinated against the flu, the less flu can spread through that community, according to the Centers for Disease Control. 
The CDC estimates that flu-related illnesses have killed more than 12,000 since 2010. Most of those deaths, say health experts, could have been prevented. 
Most insurance now covers 100 percent of the cost of flu shots. Without insurance, the average cost is between $5 and $30 dollars. 
There are three basic flu shots:

The regular seasonal flu shot is “intramuscular” meaning it’s injected into muscle, usually the upper arm. Used for decades, the shot is approved for use in people over 6 months of age, including healthy people, people with chronic medical conditions and pregnant women. Regular flu shots make up the bulk of the vaccine supply produced for U.S.

The high-dose flu vaccine is for people 65 and older is also intramuscular. This vaccine was first made available during the 2010-11 season.

The nasal-spray flu vaccine is made with live, weakened flu viruses that do not cause the flu. It’s sometimes called LAIV, short for Live Attenuated Influenza Vaccine. LAIV is approved for healthy people between the ages of 2 and 49 who are not pregnant.