It’s time for flu shots – now.

Influenza cases have already broken out in the Chicago area, so doctors say don’t delay. The consequences could be dire.

“Influenza is different than a cold virus – it’s like a cold virus on steroids,” said Dr. Emily Landon, an epidemiologist with the University of Chicago Hospital. “It’s marked by very high fever, body aches and a cough that can easily become pneumonia.”

“Many people die of it every year – even healthy adults if they get a bad enough case,” she said. “A 24-hour stomach flu is not the real influenza.”

The flu is like a cold virus on steroids, says Dr. Emily Landon, an epidemiologist with the University of Chicago Hospital. | Andrew Nelles/University of Chicago

Everyone over the age of six months should get vaccinated – and there’s no option for a nasal mist this year, experts say.

No one yet knows the exact influenza strain that will hit Chicago, but a flu shot vaccine covers the viruses that have already surfaced elsewhere in the world, Landon said. Federal officials urge everyone to get the flu shot by the end of October.

Flu shots take about two weeks to be effective, so it’s better to get them taken care of, experts say. A high-dose vaccine is available for the elderly.

Globally, 30,000 people die each year from influenza and 140,000 to 170,000 must be hospitalized, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

What else can be done?

A key safety measure is to stay healthy, practice good hygiene and get plenty of rest, said Dr. Susan Bleasdale, infection control medical director at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Dr. Susan Bleasdale | Supplied Photo

“The people most at risk are the very young, the very old, pregnant women, people with asthma, emphasema or whose immune system is compromised,” she said.

Dr. Debra Cody, a convenient care specialist at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital, said regular handwashing with soap and water or hand sanitizers is important because it’s common for people to touch their faces without even realizing it after they’ve sneezed or touched a door handle.

“We advise that people lather up and sing ‘happy birthday’ before turning off the faucet, whether at home, work or school, she said. If someone already feels badly, he or she should stay home so they don’t spread the germs, Cody said.

Other tips include:

— Cover your cough with your elbow. The new etiquette differs from the old-fashioned idea of covering your cough or sneeze with your hands because people often use their hands to spread the germs.
— Keep children mindful of proper handwashing and sneeze-control etiquette.
— Avoid people who are ill if possible, and either stay home or ensure that sick children stay home until they no longer have a fever or a flu-related headache.

For children, the flu shot offers the extra protection of keeping people around them – babies, grandparents and others who may be vulnerable – from greater risk. Children with health conditions like asthma or diabetes and all children younger than 5 are at high risk of serious illness when they get the flu, according to the CDC website (www.cdc.gov/flu/about/index.html). Children ages 6 months through 8 years who received at least two doses of any licensed flu vaccine prior to July 2016 need only one dose this season.

Children that same age who are getting vaccinated for the first time, or who have previously received one dose of vaccine in the past, should get two doses this season. The second dose should be given at least 28 days after the first to build immunity, the CDC says.

For people 65 years and older, two vaccines are available: a high-dose version that contains four time the amount of immune-response agent as a regular flu shot, and the Fluad vaccine aimed at boosting one’s immune response to vaccination.

People 65 and over also should be up to date with their pneumococcal vaccination to protect against meningitis, pneumonia or bloodstream infections, the CDC warns.

Finally, anyone at a higher risk of getting the flu should take extra care to get immunized and protect themselves, including those with diabetes, cancer, HIV or AIDS, heart and chronic lung disease, kidney, blood and liver disorders.

Sandra Guy is a local freelance writer.