@$: Flu season is almost upon us. And, it's something to be taken seriously.

According to the American College of Emergency Physicians, seasonal influenza, which is commonly known as "the flu," may affect between five to as high as 20 percent of the U.S. population depending on the year.

A more startling statistic is that more than 200,000 people are hospitalized each year for flu-related complications and about 36,000 people die each year from the flu.

Older people, young children, pregnant women and those with certain chronic health conditions are at higher risk.

The flu spreads from person to person by direct contact or through virus-infected droplets coughed or sneezed in the air.

The emergency physicians say the best way to protect against the flu is to get vaccinated every year. The ideal time for that is usually before flu season begins which typically peaks in January and will last through about March.

Signs and symptoms of the flu may include:

Ÿ High fever (usually 100 degrees F to 103 degrees F in adults and often higher in children)

Ÿ Chills

Ÿ Headache

Ÿ Fatigue

Ÿ Muscle Aches

Ÿ Dizziness

Ÿ Loss of appetite

Ÿ Dry cough

Ÿ Sore throat

Ÿ Runny or stuffy nose

Ÿ Weakness

Ÿ Ear Infection

Ÿ Diarrhea

Whether or not you get the flu shot, do what you can to prevent it. Wash your hands frequently. Avoid contact with individuals who display possible flu symptoms.

If you contract the flu, try not to spread it. Stay home from work. Rest.

If your symptoms get worse, go to a hospital emergency room.

Both the common cold and flu are caused by viruses, and therefore do not respond to antibiotics, say the emergency physicians.

Flu symptoms usually are more severe than the typical sneezing, stuffiness and congestion that go along with a cold.Flu symptoms also tend to develop quickly typically between one and four days after a person is exposed to the flu virus, and people are contagious from 24 hours before they become ill until their symptoms resolve, the physicians say.

Don't pooh pooh flu season. Even if you haven't had the flu in the past, if you have signs of it take precautions.

Remember, the flu not only is contagious, it can be deadly.

By RON GOWER

rgower@tnonline.com