The kids are back in school, the days grow shorter and a bit cooler with each passing week. All signs that we're spending more time indoors and getting closer to the cold and flu season. International Infection Prevention Week takes place this month, a good time to revisit some practices that can keep us healthy during a challenging time of year, when the spread of "the bug" is most threatening. Infections are the root cause of most illnesses. Infections occur when germs enter your body, multiply and cause you to get sick. Both bacteria and viruses cause infections. Bacteria can come from the air, water, soil-even food. Common bacterial infections include pneumonia, bronchitis and ear infections. Viruses, on the other hand are passed around from person to person. Common viral infections include the common cold and flu. Your immune system typically helps your body protect itself from infections, but occasionally can become overwhelmed by a rapid growth of a bacteria or virus. This often results in illness and a trip to the doctor's office. My top three tips for avoiding that trip include:

Get vaccinated This is the single most important thing you can do for you and your loved ones, colleagues and friends. The latest vaccine is 70 to 90 percent effective against the three most common strains of flu in healthy individuals under 65 years of age. You may still develop a different strain of the flu, but you'll be less likely to be hospitalized from it. Now is a good time to get your flu shot, as it takes about two weeks after vaccination for antibodies to develop in the body and provide protection against influenza virus infection. The worst months for the flu tend to be November through March. Who needs to be vaccinated? According the Centers for Disease Control: • People who are immunosuppressed or at high risk of developing serious complications (like pneumonia) if they get sick with the flu. • People who have certain medical conditions including asthma, diabetes, and chronic lung disease. • Pregnant women. • People younger than five years (and especially those younger than two) and people 65 years and older. • People who live with or care for others who are at high risk of developing serious complications. • Household contacts and caregivers of people with certain medical conditions including asthma, diabetes and chronic lung disease. • Household contacts and caregivers of infants less than six months old. • Health care personnel.

Take preventative measures You've heard it before and you'll hear it again -- clean hands help prevent infections. Many diseases are spread by not washing your hands, often, thoroughly and especially before and after certain activities: • Before, during, and after cooking food • Before you eat • After going to the bathroom • After changing diapers • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing • After touching or cleaning up after your pet • After touching trash • Before and after treating a cut or wound.

Alcohol-based products are OK if you rub your hands until they are completely dry.

If you do get sick Seek treatment right away.Anti-viral medications work best given within two to three days of your first symptoms. Stay home. You can infect people around you from one day before you feel sick until five days after your symptoms go away. This can be longer for children and others with weak immune systems. Since common colds often come with the same type of symptoms as the flu, they can be difficult to distinguish and should be treated with the same caution.

Kaely Mayden, BSN, RN, is an infection control specialist at St. Mary's Medical Center in Blue Springs.