FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- Like the winter weather, cases of the influenza virus have been mild during the first month of 2012, but Lyster Army Health Clinic officials are encouraging Fort Rucker residents to remain cold and flu free by taking a few easy steps.

"It has not been a particularly bad year for the flu, but it's still the time of year to be careful. One thing that is most important is to wash your hands and get the influenza vaccine," said Maj. Laura Ricardo, Lyster Army Health Clinic chief of preventive medicine.

Getting immunizations, hand washing, avoiding contact with the sick and taking supplements can all prevent illnesses, including colds and the flu, said Ricardo.

According to The Centers for Disease Control, the flu season can begin as early as October and last as late as May, leaving many who choose not to get vaccinated at risk well into the year.

While many have already received the flu vaccine, Ricardo encouraged those who have not to visit the Immunization Clinic at LAHC, especially those with compromised immune systems and with great risk, such as the elderly, health care workers and young children.

"Those people should get a flu shot immediately. It's an inactive form, so patients shouldn't worry about getting sick from the flu shot. All they have to do is walk in to get the immunization," she said.

According to the CDC, the current vaccine protects against an influenza A H3N2 virus, an influenza B virus and the H1N1 virus that caused a fatal pandemic. The flu vaccine is approved for use in people older than 6 months, including healthy people and people with chronic medical conditions.

Ricardo also dispelled any worry of getting sick from receiving the flu vaccine.

"The virus inside the shot is inactive. It cannot make you sick, even if you have a compromised immune system," she said.

Other viruses that cause the common cold can be prevented by frequently washing hands, and using alcohol-based hand sanitizers as a back up to hand washing.

"Hand washing is the preferred way to prevent illness over using alcohol-based products, because alcohol can break down the first layer of skin. Your skin is your body's first layer of protection against illness," said Ricardo.

Ricardo also encouraged people to be proactive about their health by taking supplements and living healthy lifestyles that promote a healthier immune system.

"I think the biggest thing is to stay healthy in order to combat illness. I recommend daily intake of 15mg of zinc. The studies show it might prevent the length and time of a common cold, and can be recommended as prevention," she said.

For those who might already show symptoms such as coughing, sneezing or fever, taking steps to prevent spreading illness include covering the nose and mouth with a tissue when they cough or sneeze and avoiding touching the mouth and eyes. If you are sick with flu-like illness, the CDC recommends that you stay home for at least 24 hours after having a fever.

For more information on preventing illness or immunizations, call 255-7754.