By Jeff Fox

The flu season hasn’t yet kicked into high gear, but officials say now, as the holidays near, is a good time to get vaccinated.

“Oh, absolutely. We strongly recommend that,” said Carol Roberson, public health nurse with the Independence Health Department.

A flu shot takes two weeks to take full effect, so now is the time to get vaccinated before all those family – and germ – gatherings for the holidays.

“If you haven’t, it’s not too late. Go ahead and get it,” said Sharon Engelman, clinical nurse manager of the Jackson County Health Department.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday posted a statement that flu “activity remains low in the U.S. but is expected to increase in the coming weeks.”

Roberson echoed that, saying “So far we really haven’t seen too much” of a flu outbreak in the area.

The CDC stresses simple steps:

• Get a flu shot every year. That’s everyone over the age of 6 months. There are extra-strong vaccines designed for seniors, who are generally at a higher risk of complications if they get sick.

• Wash your hands – frequently. That means soap and water, and lather up those hands – including the backs of hands, between the fingers, under the nails – for about 20 seconds. How long is 20 seconds? The CDC suggests humming “Happy Birthday” twice.

• If you get the flu, take anti-virals as prescribed by your doctor.

There’s a change in flu shots this year. Manufacturers say they’ll make 138 million to 145 million doses for the U.S. market. Up to now, vaccines were “trivalent,” that is, targeted at three strains of flu – two influenza A viruses and one influenza B virus. This year, 30 million to 32 million of the doses produced will be “quadrivalent” – two A’s and two B’s.

After a mild season or two, the number of people getting a shot tends to drop off, Engelman said. However, health officials stress that getting a flu shot is not just about protecting oneself but also about avoiding the spread of the disease to others, especially those most vulnerable to complications.

“There’s always more work to be done on our end” reminding people to get vaccinated, Engelman said.

The CDC reminds everyone that the flu is different from a cold. It’s a contagious respiratory illness that usually comes on suddenly with a cough, sore throat, a runny or stuffy nose, muscle and body aches, headache and fatigue. Fever or feeling feverish with chills is common, but not everyone experiences that. Children are more prone than adults to suffer vomiting and diarrhea.

Most people get over the flu in a few days to two weeks, but some develop complications such as pneumonia. Flu can worsen chronic health problems. Thousands die of the flu or its complications every year, 90 percent of them 65 or older, the CDC says.

And what if you get sick? For starters, stay home from work, school and running errands if you can. Cover your mouth or nose when you cough or sneeze. See a doctor about an anti-viral, the CDC recommends.

More generally, ward off the flu by avoiding contact with those who are sick. Avoid touching the eyes, nose and mouth. Clean and disinfect frequently touched areas at the home or office. And practice good overall healthy habits: plenty of sleep, plenty of physical activity, plenty of water and other fluids, and healthful food.