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As the year draws deeper into the flu season, everyone should be taking precautionary measures to defend against the flu. The virus that causes influenza can cause aches, chills, fever, nausea, and in some cases lead to complications requiring hospitalization or worse. But as serious as it is, the flu can be protected against.

Basic sanitary practices such as regular hand washing, avoiding exposure to those already sick with the flu, and avoiding touching of the eyes and mouth can all help to prevent the spread of the flu, but experts say the best way to defend against the flu is with a vaccination.

"The first and most important step in protecting against flu viruses is to get vaccinated," said Hospital Corpsman 1st Class (FMF) Paul Groseclose, leading petty officer of the Preventive Medicine Department at the Branch Health Clinic, Washington Navy Yard. "An annual seasonal flu vaccine, either the flu shot or the nasal-spray flu vaccine, is the best way to reduce the chances that you will get seasonal flu and lessen the chance that you will spread it to others. When more people get vaccinated against the flu, less flu can spread through that community."

Groseclose explained that the flu vaccine protects against several of the most prevalent forms of the flu.

"Each year, experts from the Food and Drug Administration, World Health Organization, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other institutions study virus samples collected from around the world," said Groseclose. "They identify the influenza viruses that are the most likely to cause illness during the upcoming flu season."

The vaccination is usually given one of two ways, as an injected shot or an inhaled nasal spray. The main difference between the two is that the flu shot is an inactivated vaccine - containing killed virus - while the nasal spray contains attenuated, or weakened, viruses. The weakened viruses are cold-adapted, which means they are designed to only cause infection at the cooler temperatures found within the nose and cannot cause flu illness. In both cases, the vaccine allows the body's immune system to identify and defend against the flu viruses in the vaccine without succumbing to the disease.

"Receiving an annual influenza vaccine is the best and most important defense against outbreaks," said Dr. Margan Zajdowicz, Naval District Washington public health emergency officer. "Even when we encounter a novel strain of influenza, like we did in the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, people who have been multiply vaccinated for influenza do better and are more resistant to influenza infection. This is because they have mounted multiple immune responses to a variety of related influenza viruses and cross reactivity protects them to some extent."

While the vaccine is safe for general use, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warn that certain precautions must be taken before receiving a flu vaccine. The CDC warns that people who have had a severe allergy or reaction to a previous flu vaccine should not be vaccinated. The CDC also warns people who have an allergy to eating eggs to discuss flu vaccination with their doctor, though many egg-allergic individuals can safely receive influenza vaccine. Further consideration should be given for people with weakened immune systems, as the flu mist contains live, albeit attenuated, flu viruses.

While there are health issues some people should consider before being vaccinated, the CDC stresses that the flu vaccine is safe, and that members of the population have been receiving flu vaccines for more than 50 years. The organization states that it, along with the Food and Drug Administration, monitor vaccine safety annually, and that hundreds of millions of flu vaccines have been given safely to people across the country for decades.

The CDC estimates that 5 to 20 percent of U.S. residents get the flu and more than 200,000 people are hospitalized each year for flu-related complications. By getting a flu shot, an individual greatly reduces their chances of contracting the disease and possibly spreading it to others.

For more information on the flu vaccine, visit www.cdc.gov/fea tures/Flu/.