While many of us dread the annual winter cold and flu season, fortunately, for most, a winter cold or bout of the flu represents only temporary discomfort. For a significant minority of Americans, though, a case of the flu poses a serious health threat.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as many as 20 percent of Americans will get the flu each year, resulting in over 200,000 hospitalizations and, tragically, approximately 36,000 flu-related deaths.
Most of us are familiar with the family of symptoms associated with a case of the flu, but given the chance for complications, it is worth recalling the signs to watch for in members of your household.
The list of the CDC’s commonly associated flu symptoms include fever (usually high), headache, extreme tiredness, a dry cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle aches and stomach symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, which are more common in children than adults.
To protect yourself and your family, it is important to understand that the flu generally spreads from person to person and a healthy adult may be able to infect others as early as one day prior to symptoms setting in.
The medical community agrees that getting vaccinated against the flu represents the best course for prevention. The CDC particularly recommends vaccinations for several key groups, including:
• Children, from 6 months old up to their 19th birthday;
• Pregnant women;
• People 50 years of age and older;
• People of any age with certain chronic medical conditions;
• People who live in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities;
• Health care workers;
• Household contacts of persons at high risk for complications from the flu; and
• Household contacts and out-of-home caregivers of children less than 6 months of age, as these children are too young to be vaccinated.
Today, we have two options for flu vaccination, which include a traditional flu shot and the relatively new nasal-spray flu vaccine. Both are highly effective, but because the shot uses an inactive vaccine where the nasal spray vaccine is made with weakened but live viruses, individuals should discuss which vaccine is appropriate for one’s own situation with their physician.
Specifically, the CDC warns that people with the following conditions should not receive a vaccination without first consulting a physician. These groups include:
• People who have a severe allergy to chicken eggs;
• People who have had a severe reaction to an influenza vaccination in the past;
• People who developed Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) within six weeks of getting an influenza vaccine previously;
• Children less than 6 months of age, as influenza vaccine is not approved for use in this age group; and
• People who have a moderate or severe illness with a fever, who should wait to get vaccinated until their symptoms lessen.
In addition to vaccinations, everyone can take some basic steps to protect themselves from the flu. Simply get into a routine of regular hand-washing with warm water and soap; avoid touching one’s eyes, nose and mouth unless after a thorough hand-washing; avoid sharing towels; regularly wash household linens; and regularly clean surfaces like bathroom sinks, kitchen counters and other high-traffic areas within your household. Those practices will all go a long way toward preventing the spread of the flu.
Of course, regular exercise, a healthy diet and eight hours of sound sleep per night will bolster your immune system and help your body naturally fight the harmful effects of stress, the flu and many other illnesses.
Some common misconceptions about the flu include:
The flu vaccine can give you the flu. Many people believe that you can get influenza from the flu shot. In fact, the vaccine cannot give you a case of the flu, because it is made with dead flu virus components.
Going out in cold weather causes the flu. The flu is caused by a virus and spread by other people who have been infected and are coughing or sneezing.
The vaccine does not work because you can still get influenza. At any time, there are many different types of viruses around that can cause symptoms similar to those associated with influenza, such as fever, runny nose and cough. These viruses, however, cause mild illnesses, unlike the influenza virus.
If you take the flu vaccine once, you are protected for life. While this is true for other vaccines, it is not true for the flu vaccine. There are a number of flu viruses, but each year, health experts predict which ones will be most common and create a vaccine that protects against these strains. The most common strains change each year, so people need to get the influenza vaccine each year to be protected against new types of flu virus.
Take antibiotics to fight the flu. Antibiotics are not effective against viruses like influenza.
Dr. Nandini Sengupta is the director of pediatrics at The Dimock Center in Roxbury. Flu vaccinations are available to patients of The Dimock Center. For additional information about flu vaccinations or to consult a physician at The Dimock Center, please call 617-442-8800 or visit www.dimock.org.