It’s only been a few days since the first real taste of fall, yet ask around, and many people have already been suffering through some sort of cold. From a sore throat to a stuffy nose, cough and everything in between, the first of the winter bugs are upon us. But lurking out there and not too far away is a much more menacing germ known as the flu.

“A lot of people think the flu is stomach flu, but that’s not it,” says Barbara Baker, Director of Infection Prevention at St. Anthony Hospital. “Influenza is a severe respiratory illness with a cough, fever greater than 100 degrees, and body aches. Chances are if you’ve had it, you’ll remember it because often people describe the feeling as being hit by a truck.”

Each year in the U.S., between 5 percent and 20 percent of the population comes down with the flu. That amounts to a total of 60 million infections leading to 25 million visits to the doctor. About 200,000 people become hospitalized for those infections and around 38,000 die from complications. Compare that to pneumonia’s 5,500 deaths a year or meningitis’ 125 deaths a year and you can see the flu is more serious than you might think.

That’s why there are pushes in the community to get your flu shot, especially those at the highest risk. So, who are these people?

“Those at the highest risk are the elderly and the very young,” says Baker. “And in-between those ages, risk is higher in people with chronic illness, like diabetes, heart disease, or lung disease. Also people whose immune systems are compromised, such as those receiving cancer treatments, are more susceptible.”

Not everyone can get the flu shot, including those younger than 6 months of age, people with a severe reaction to eggs and those who’ve had a reaction to the vaccine in the past. That’s why “herd immunity” is so important. Herd immunity is vaccinating a greater number of the community to prevent the illness from being transmitted to those who are most vulnerable. To achieve this goal, the CDC says we need 80 percent of Americans to get the flu shot, including those not considered high risk.

Now is the perfect time to get your shot. Flu cases were recognized during September this year. St. Anthony began administering the vaccine to patients and employees on September 6. Once you receive your immunization it takes about two weeks to receive protection from the flu virus.

So is it ever too late to receive your shot? “No,” says Baker. “Even if you’re busy and make it through Christmas without getting the shot, it’s still worth getting. January and February are the months the flu peaks around here about 80 percent of the time.”

And if you think you’ll skip the shot and instead just see your doctor at the first sign of symptoms, you could be in for a rude awakening says Baker.

“The truth is the Anti-viral medication only helps if taken within 48 hours of symptoms first appearing. And even then, it will only shorten the flu’s duration 1-3 days.”

And the flu can last as long as 10 days. That means a high fever, headache, severe muscle aches along with a cough.

“There are many ‘influenza-like’ illnesses,” says Baker. “But influenza is unique in that it can have more severe consequences. That’s why it’s best to take the vaccine to avoid a case of influenza, or minimize the severity should you become infected.”