Dr. Carolyn McClain is an ER physician and medical director of The Urgency Room in Woodbury, Eagan and Vadnais Heights, Minn.

Last year during the 2016-2017 flu season, hospitalizations from influenza increased almost 143 percent over the previous season. The flu can be dangerous and it's important to know it's making an unwanted debut in the region as we speak.

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, patients presenting to health care providers across the state with influenza-like symptoms are on the rise and expected to continue to climb. Since we know it's here, it's important to know how you can protect yourself and loved ones this year. There are a number of things you can do to reduce your risk of contracting the flu. Make sure you are educated and understand how you can protect yourself and those around you.

First and foremost, anyone who is six months and older and eligible for the vaccination should receive the flu shot. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the nasal flu spray flu vaccine (LAIV) is NOT recommended for the 2017-2018 flu season. All eligible patients should receive the injectable shot this year.

We recommend people begin getting the flu shot in the fall, generally October to November, understanding there is always fluctuation in the flu season year to year. In understanding how the vaccination works, it typically takes two weeks to start to protect the recipient and around three weeks to be fully effective. Ideally you would like to stay ahead of the virus and be fully effective prior to peak flu season. It is important to note, however, that if you miss the ideal window for the flu shot, getting vaccinated at any point during the season can still be beneficial. Most doctor offices and retail clinics continue to offer the vaccination throughout the season as it's available. As many as 166 million doses of the injectable vaccine are expected to be available in the U.S. this year.

This year's flu vaccine protects against three strains of the virus so even if you did not receive the vaccination but believe you have already had the flu this season, it's recommended that you still get the shot. Though you are now producing antibodies to one of the strains, getting the vaccination will work to keep you protected from the other two stains.

Protection from infants to adults

Infants and children under the age of 5 are at a high risk of contracting the flu and serious flu-related complications. The CDC warns this risk is exceptionally high for children younger than two years old.

Children six months and older are eligible for the flu vaccine. All children six months and older and anyone caring for a child, should receive the flu vaccine. It is the most important thing you can do for flu protection. Children receiving the vaccination for the first time need two doses spaced a month apart before they are fully protected - it's good to keep this information in mind when planning your child's first vaccination appointment. They will need both doses for the vaccine to be fully effective. Pregnant women are included in the list of eligible patients and recommended to obtain the flu shot.

Once vaccinated, protect yourself and children with regular hand washing, disinfecting exposed surfaces and stay mindful of unintentionally spreading germs (touching your eyes, nose, mouth, etc.). Keep children away from other sick kids and if you or your child do contract the virus, keep them away from others to reduce the risk of spreading to others.

Aging population (65+)

Because human immune defenses become weaker with age, the CDC recommends that many older adults, ages 65 and over, receive high-dose flu shots. As patients age, their ability to recover is also affected. Dosing adjustments are made to give older adults a better immune response and therefore better protection from the flu. Talk with your health care provider for more information on high-dose flu shots.

Winter is in full swing and we now have confirmation that flu season is too. Remember to protect yourself and those around you. Make sure you are vaccinated if eligible and take the proper precautions if you do feel you have contracted the virus. Each year we see hundreds of influenza-infected patients. Use these tips to help keep you and your family healthy this 2017-2018 flu season.