Simple prevention could help you avoid sickness

Herd immunity minimizes scale of outbreaks

ROANOKE, Va. – Don't let the nice weather fool you, flu season is almost here and if you haven't done it already, now is the best time to get your flu shot.

Dr. Thomas Kerkering, the chief of infectious diseases at Carilion, said the best way to avoid getting the flu is being vaccinated before the first case of the virus is reported in our area. Because the flu is unpredictable and a vaccine takes about two weeks to become fully effective, it's important to be vaccinated early. The CDC recommends everyone get the flu shot by the end of October.

Dr. Kerkering says it's especially important for pregnant women to get the vaccination, as he has seen then end up the sickest from the flu virus over the past few years. It's also important for children, elderly adults, and anyone with a weekend immune system to get the flu shot as well.

Dr. Kerkering says the more people that get the flu shot, the better. 

"The reason you want more people to get [the flu shot] is the more people who have it, they develop what we call herd immunity," he says. "So the more people that are protected, the less awful an outbreak would be."

More vaccinations could cut down on the more than 200,000 Americans hospitalized for the flu each year. 

If you are vaccinated now, your flu shot will last through the end of flu season.

While the common cold and flu are the biggest illnesses we typically see in kids once they head back to school, there are other things parents should be looking out for that may have similar symptoms.

Dr. Kerkering says there's a bacteria called mycoplasma pneumoniae, which has its peak in the fall. In children, he says the bacteria can cause an ear infection or lead to a lingering dry and hacking cough. The bacteria is spread through coughing.

Once kids are back in tight quarters we can also see the rise of hand, foot and mouth disease. Symptoms include blisters in the mouth, which could lead to drooling, as well as bumps on the palms of our hands and bottom of our feet.

While hand, foot and mouth is usually spread from child to child during the first week of the illness, the virus can stay in a child's stool for several months, and can spread to others, like a parent or caregiver, while changing a dirty diaper.

Peak season for norovirus is from December to March. They easily spread illness leads to a host of stomach problems, like vomiting and diarrhea. Anyone infected with the virus is contagious from the moment they have symptoms until up to two weeks after they start feeling better.

Dr. Kerkering says the key to avoiding many of these illnesses is simple: wash your hands and do it often. 

"You should really be using soap and water. The hand disinfectants do work, but the actual mechanical action of washing your hands helps get rid of dirt, which you need to get rid of before you can sanitize and clean away the virus," he says. 

He says it's important to wash your hands not just before cooking or eating, but throughout the day.