If you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), or other autoimmune conditions, you're already more at risk for the seasonal flu, as well as the H1N1 flu. Disease activity and medications interfere with or suppress your immune system, making you a prime target for any bacteria or virus floating around. But how do you tell if you have the flu or an arthritis flare.

An arthritis flare and the flu share similar symptoms, according to rheumatologist John Hardin, M.D., chief scientific officer at the Arthritis Foundation. In an article published on the association's website, he explains that the similarity stems from your body attacking itself during a rheumatoid arthritis flare.

The immune system is supposed to attack foreign invaders, but in rheumatoid arthritis, it targets the joints and produces chemicals that make cause aches and pain. Hardin and others, such as the Mayo Clinic and National Institutes of Health, provide valuable insight on how to tell the difference between an arthritis flare and the flu.

  • Sore throat and cough, common  symptoms of the flu, are rare during an arthritis flare.
  • Aches and pains are usually confined to joints when you have an arthritis flare.
  • Ache and discomfort all over your body is more characteristic of the flu, not an arthritis flare.
  • Stiff, swollen joints is more indicative of an arthritis flare, especially morning stiffness.
  • High fever (over 102 degrees) suggests that you're likely a flu victim. Arthritis flares produce low-grade or mild fevers around 101.4 degrees.

How to Stay Safe this Flu Season

These timely tips may make you less vulnerable to the seasonal or H1N1 flu when you have rheumatoid arthritis:

  • Get the flu shot, which is strongly recommended by the Arthritis Foundation and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for people with autoimmune conditions.
  • Wash your hands frequently, to avoid contracting or spreading the flu virus.
  • Wipe down frequently used surfaces, especially if your child attends school or daycare. Also, teach your children proper hand-washing techniques.
  • Boost your immune system naturally by getting lots of sleep and rest, eating healthy nutritious meals, exercising, and taking immune-boosting herbs such as astragalus, goldenseal and elderberry. Check with your doctor to make sure these herbs don't interact with your rheumatoid arthritis medications.
  • Take the lowest dose of arthritis medications such as corticosteroids to control RA symptoms and avoid arthritis flares. These immunosuppressant drugs make you more susceptible to infections, so speak to your doctor about your dosage.
  • Avoid people with flu symptoms as much as possible. Stay home from work if there's an outbreak in your office, or if you have symptoms yourself. If you feel the need, wear a mask for even more protection.