When football is back and people are buying pumpkin spice everything, it means flu season is right around the corner. Last year, more than 700,000 people were estimated to have been hospitalized due to the flu. It’s time to start getting ready.
Influenza is a virus that typically causes infections in the fall and winter months, but the season varies from year to year. You may be familiar with some of these variations, such as H1N1 and H3N2, after hearing about them in the news. There are two basic strains of influenza, A and B. We further classify influenza A by the type of proteins that attach to the virus itself. This is how the variations receive their names. How contagious and severe a strain is depends on a number of factors, and these can change quickly.
Two different flu viruses can combine their genetic material leading to a brand-new strain of the flu that can lead to global pandemics. This was seen in 2009 when a swine-human-avian H1N1 flu emerged. There are also slight genetic mutations within strains each year, and sometimes multiple times each year — which is why finding the perfect flu vaccine proves to be so difficult.
Despite these factors, there are still things we can do to prevent influenza infections and keep ourselves and our families healthy. As with most every illness, getting regular exercise and eating a healthy, plant-based diet can help to improve your immune system and make you less susceptible to flu infections and complications. Getting at least seven to eight hours of sleep and staying well-hydrated are also important, as is good hand hygiene.
While it is not perfect, the seasonal flu vaccine is the best way to prevent and reduce the severity of infections. While the CDC recommends flu vaccines for everyone six months of age and older, vaccines are especially important for the most vulnerable individuals: children, those 65 and older, people with chronic diseases, and smokers. Last year, 80% of pediatric flu deaths occurred in children that did not get a flu vaccine. The CDC estimates that last year’s flu vaccine prevented approximately 5.3 million illnesses, 2.6 million medical visits, and 85,000 hospitalizations.
The majority of our patients get their flu shots each year, but we often hear reasons or excuses why someone doesn’t want to get theirs. In most cases, these are myths, and we respond with the realities:
“It makes me sick”: The flu vaccines that are currently available don’t contain any live flu virus, so they can’t make you sick. Some people will get a low-grade temperature or mild body aches within 48 hours of the vaccine, and this is simply the body making antibodies – which means the vaccine is working. Simply take Tylenol or ibuprofen to treat these symptoms. Also, it takes about two weeks for the vaccine to work, so if you get the flu shortly after the shot, chances are you were exposed to the virus before the vaccine was effective.
“I never get the flu”: You just haven’t gotten the flu yet.The flu shot is a lot like a seatbelt. I don’t get into an accident every time I drive, but I always wear my seatbelt just in case I do, because it can save my life.
“I’ll stay away from everyone if I get sick so I don’t spread it to the office”: That’s nice of you, but unfortunately, you are actually contagious for about 24 hours before you have any symptoms. This means you are already passing this illness around to your family and coworkers before you even know you are sick.
“The flu shot doesn’t work, I’ve gotten the shot and still got the flu”: It’s true that the flu vaccine isn’t as effective as other vaccines, like those for measles or polio, but it does reduce the risk that someone will need to visit a doctor for symptoms due to the flu by about 40 to 60 percent. It also can reduce the severity of flu symptoms as well as the risk of complications like pneumonia. Remember, perfect is the enemy of good, so just because a shot isn’t 100 percent effective doesn’t mean it doesn’t help at all.
If you find yourself developing a sudden onset headache, fever, sore throat, cough, and severe body aches, we still have options to treat the flu. We commonly use oseltamivir (Tamiflu) to help treat the flu in high-risk patients, such as children, those 65 and older, and those with chronic illnesses. This treatment has to be started within 48 hours of the appearance of symptoms, so call your doctor right away for advice on treatment. If you have issues with shortness of breath, then seek medical care right away.
We prepare for every snow storm by buying enough bread and milk to make French toast for an army. So we should be preparing for flu season with the same sense of urgency. Get regular exercise, eat healthy, stay hydrated, get enough sleep, and practice good hand hygiene. Also, go to your local pharmacy or call your doctor now to schedule your flu vaccine in order to protect yourself, your coworkers and your family.