It is likely that memories of last year’s flu season are still fresh in the minds of many — H1N1 infected millions, and vaccine shortages led to fear and anxiety while waiting for the flu vaccine to arrive.
The official start of the 2010 flu season isn’t far away, and flu activity is likely to peak as usual in January, February and March. It is hard to predict what kind of season we can expect this year, but the latest vaccine — which protects against three strains of flu, including the H1N1 virus — is already beginning to arrive at doctor’s offices and clinics.
This flu season the CDC has voted in favor of a universal recommendation for the flu vaccine — this means that everyone age 6 months or older should get vaccinated. You can get vaccinated anytime from now through the end of April, though sooner is better.
Though a universal flu vaccine recommendation is in place, vaccination of high risk groups continues to be of the utmost importance — children up to the age of 18 are one high risk group; so are seniors, individuals with compromised immune systems and healthcare workers.
If you received the H1N1 vaccination last year, you will still need to receive this year’s vaccination to protect yourself from two other strains of the virus. Even though the pandemic is over, H1N1 is still circulating and we can certainly expect some cases or outbreaks to occur this season.
There are two ways to receive your vaccination: the flu shot or the nasal spray. The flu shot is an inactivated vaccine given by injection into the muscle. The nasal spray — which has increased in popularity over the last few years, particularly for children and adults who have a fear of needles — is a live, weakened vaccine that is sprayed into the nostrils. However, this spray is limited to healthy individuals aged 2 to 49 who are not pregnant and do not have chronic health conditions such as asthma or diabetes.
Vaccination is the first and most important step in protecting against flu and H1N1, but it is also important to take other preventative measures to reduce the likelihood of infection.
For instance, get your children in the habit of washing their hands often — when they use the bathroom, before and after they eat, and after touching things at a public place like a museum, school or playground. They should wash with soap and warm water and they should do it long enough to be able to sing “Happy Birthday” — and so should you. Keep bottles of Purell, or other alcohol-based anti-bacterial gels handy, and be sure to pack children’s backpacks with tissues and teach them to use the tissues to cover their mouths when they sneeze. If there is no tissue handy, teach them to sneeze into their shirt or the crook of their elbow, and not cover their mouths with their hands.
Shaking hands with someone who is sick is asking for trouble, so keep your distance when you know or suspect someone has a cold. More viruses are transmitted from contact with skin or by close face-to-face contact than from germs drifting through the air. Make sure you get enough sleep and eat plenty of fruits and veggies to keep up your immunity.
In addition, if you suspect that you or your child may be sick with the flu — fever, body-aches, stuffy or runny nose, cough, sore throat, perhaps nausea and vomiting — stay home until the fever has been gone for at least 24 hours.
Being prepared for the seasonal flu and H1N1 flu is the best defense and it is never too early to get ready.
Dr. Benjamin Kruskal is a pediatrician and Director of Infection Control at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates, a multi-specialty medical group offering primary and specialty care. For an up-to-date listing of physicians accepting new patients, visit www.harvardvanguard.org .