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Precautions encouraged as flu spreads throughout state

Wash your hands.

Stay home from work, if you don’t feel well.

Get a flu shot.

The Virginia Department of Health is asking the public to follow these guidelines to lessen the effects of the seasonal flu, which has reached widespread activity in the state.

It’s not too late to get vaccinated, and health officials urge almost everyone over 6 months to do so.

Though few cases have been reported locally, January through March is typically a more “active” time for the seasonal flu. Of course, no one can predict what the virus will do, said Dr. Brooke Rossheim, health director of the Rappahannock Area Health District.

“This is the time of year when we expect to see more flu,” Rossheim said.

Flu levels in Virginia hit the widespread mark as of Dec. 21, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, making the state one of 11 to do so.

Locally, the health district hasn’t received too many reports of flu cases, Rossheim said. The virus can infect people in pockets around the state, meaning one region may fare worse than another.

Rappahannock Family Physicians hasn’t seen too many cases of the flu yet, though they have diagnosed other upper respiratory infections.

This year’s vaccine seems to be effective, and there are plenty of doses still available, said nurse manager Patti Ray. “We’re kind of looking ahead—that’s when we get hit the hardest,” she said.

Symptoms of the flu can be similar to other upper respiratory tract viruses and include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, fatigue, chills and sometimes diarrhea and vomiting.

Symptoms usually appear one to three days after exposure, according to the health department. Most people are ill for less than a week, but some may need to go to the hospital.

The flu virus often spreads through coughing, sneezing or talking, or touching a surface that had the virus on it and then touching the mouth, eyes or nose.

The best way to prevent the flu is by getting vaccinated, the health department says.

Some demographics are at a higher risk for for developing flu-related complications, including children younger than 5; adults 65 and older; women who are pregnant or who just had a baby; those with chronic lung disease, diabetes (type 1 and 2), heart disease, neurologic conditions, blood disorders, weak immune systems and certain other long-term medical conditions; and those who are morbidly obese.

“If people have not been immunized against influenza, this is a great time to be immunized,” Rossheim said.

The vaccine—available as a shot or nasal spray—can be found at many pharmacies, walk-in clinics and doctors’ offices.

Immunity develops about two weeks after a dose.

Vaccines are updated each year to fight against the strains of the flu that research predicts will cause the most illnesses.

“Flu vaccines aren’t perfect, but are still the first and best line of defense against the flu,” the CDC reported in a recent blog post.

Rossheim also wants the region to be aware of public health measures that can limit and prevent the spread disease:

Cover your cough or sneezes. Ray of Rappahannock Family Physicians says to do so into your elbow—not your hands.

Wash your hands frequently. “The biggest thing is that people don’t realize the importance of washing their hands,” Ray said. “It’s huge.”

And stay home from work or school if you’re not feeling well. Use a mask if you are sick or if you’re around someone who is sick, Ray added.

“Those are public health measures that definitely work,” Rossheim said.

Katie Thisdell: 540/735-1975