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Which tricks might help you avoid the flu

Save Me: Flu Costs

Consumers hoping for a healthier, wealthier 2015 may have a tough time with the former, at least—because flu season has arrived with a vengeance.

The current outbreak is shaping up to be a rough one. But there are still steps you can take to limit your chance of getting sick.

Puerto Rico and 22 states are experiencing high influenza-like illness activity, according to the latest report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's up from 13 states the previous week.

"It's definitely in full force," said Dr. Michael Jhung, a medical officer for the CDC's influenza division.

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The hasn't peaked yet, so expectations are that the numbers will get worse before they get better. Although the CDC won't compare the latest flu season against previous ones until it has run its course, there are already several signs indicating this year could be a bad one, said Dr. Jhung.

The virus that's predominant this year, H3N2, has also been the major culprit in other severe flu seasons. And it's a strain that's not covered by this year's flu vaccine.

"We usually do a good job" predicting strains for the vaccine, said Dr. Jhung. "This year, we missed a bit. The vaccine may not work as well."

Still, experts agree a flu shot is your best bet. "There's zero harm in getting the vaccine," said Dr. Davis Liu, a family physician and the author of "The Thrifty Patient." H3N2 isn't the only game in town, and this season's vaccines protect against other strains, he said.

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Although it takes up to two weeks to build up antibodies post-vaccination, it's still not too late. Flu season typically peaks in January or February, but can linger well into the spring. There's an added bonus: For most patients, getting vaccinated is free.

Hygiene and common sense

Beyond that, prevention comes down to a combination of smart hygiene and common sense. Wash your hands often and thoroughly with soap and hot water, and use hand sanitizer between washing.

"Keep your hands away from your face at all times," said Dr. Liu. "Pretend you're an astronaut with a helmet on. Don't touch your eyes, ears, nose or mouth." Many people get the flu because they touch a contaminated surface (say, a doorknob) and then their face, where the infection enters the body, he said.

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Use disinfecting wipes to clean often-touched surfaces. Both Clorox and Lysol claim their products kill 99.9 percent of viruses and bacteria, including flu strains.

If you do come down with the flu, antivirals such as Tamiflu may be particularly important this year, said Dr. Jhung. In particular, patients at high risk of complications, such as the elderly, young children and pregnant women, should ask about antivirals as soon as they start feeling flu-like symptoms. (Antivirals can be less effective if not taken soon after onset.)

"We want them to call their doctors right away," he said. "Don't wait, don't tough it out."

Many flu sufferers will just have to let the virus run its course. Doctors recommend over-the-counter medications for alleviating flu symptoms such as high fever, body aches, cough and sore throat. The usual prescriptions also apply: Rest, and drink plenty of fluids.

"For any sort of infection, chicken soup can work," said Dr. Jhung.