This year flu season has hit early and hard, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Nationwide, outpatient physician visits for flu-like symptoms are nearly double for this time of year, and hospitalizations are the highest they've been since the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic.
Kentucky is reporting influenza activity throughout the state, although reports are higher in neighboring states such as Tennessee, Virginia and Indiana.
The best ways to fight the flu include getting the flu vaccine and following good hygienic practices: Wash your hands, avoid contact with sick people, stay home when sick, and cover your nose and mouth with a tissue or sleeve when you cough or sneeze.
It's not too late to get a flu shot. However, several pharmacies and other health care providers in and around Lexington are reporting shortages and have ordered additional supplies. People still in need of a flu shot should call ahead to ensure their pharmacy or health care provider has doses available.
The flu vaccine is recommended for almost everyone 6 months and older, especially those at high risk for flu complications, including children younger than 5, pregnant women, adults older than 65, and people with asthma, other lung diseases, diabetes, and heart disease.
The flu vaccine is available as a shot or a nasal spray. Your health care provider can help determine which is best for you. Each year's vaccine is specially formulated for the current flu season, so it is important to get a new vaccine every year. This season's flu vaccines protect against three strains of the virus.
The flu shot is made from an inactivated or "killed" virus, and the nasal spray is made from a weakened virus that does not cause the illness. Common side effects are generally mild and can include arm soreness, headaches and low- grade fever.
It is possible, even after a flu shot, to contract the flu from a strain not included in this year's vaccine. However, getting the flu vaccine reduces the severity of illness from the flu and decreases your chance of having to seek medical care for flu by 60 percent.
The flu vaccine does not protect against the common cold or pneumonia caused by bacteria, both of which are sometimes mistaken for the flu. People 65 and older — and people of any age with chronic heart disease, lung diseases, diabetes and other certain chronic conditions — should also receive the pneumococcal vaccine.
The CDC and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have reached out to pharmacists to seek their help in increasing U.S. vaccination rates, currently around 40 percent.
Pharmacists are trained to administer vaccines. In most instances, adults do not require an appointment or a prescription to receive a vaccine from a pharmacist.
Additionally, pharmacists can determine whether specific vaccines are covered by your insurance and can also identify additional vaccines that are recommended to protect your health based on your chronic conditions and the medications you are taking.
Stacy A. Taylor is an assistant clinical professor at the University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy.