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Flu season fundamentals: How to protect yourself

Dr. Nandini Sengupta

Each year, health care providers, school systems and thousands of American households prepare for the onset of the traditional winter cold and flu season. However, the emergence this year of the H1N1 influenza strain, commonly known as the swine flu, has added a new dynamic to our annual battle with the flu.

Given the emergence of swine flu, it is important to note several facts about the H1N1 virus:

• The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains that, while the World Health Organization categorized the H1N1 flu as a “pandemic” and “public health emergency,” that classification refers to the large number of people across the world that have contracted the illness, rather than the severity of the illness.

• Experience from this past spring and subsequent research into this strain of the flu suggests that the swine flu is no more dangerous than the seasonal flu. In fact, according to the CDC, approximately 43,000 people in the U.S. were diagnosed with the swine flu last spring, resulting in just over 5,000 hospitalizations and less than 400 deaths. By contrast, the seasonal flu typically results in more than 200,000 hospitalizations and approximately 36,000 deaths each year.

While the CDC and other experts expect the H1N1 flu to pose no more of a health threat than the seasonal flu this year, both the swine flu and seasonal flu can cause serious illness and flu-related complications, particularly for those with existing health conditions, such as asthma, diabetes or immunodeficiency.

Fortunately, precautions for avoiding the seasonal flu apply to preventing the swine flu as well. Most of us are familiar with the family of symptoms associated with a case of the flu, but 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 fatigue, 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 that a healthy individual may be able to infect others as early as one day prior to symptoms setting in.

The medical community agrees that getting vaccinated against both the seasonal flu and the H1N1 flu represents the best course for prevention.

Seasonal flu

The CDC recommends that the following key groups be vaccinated for the seasonal flu:

• Children from the ages of 6 months old to 19;

• 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; and

• People who live with or care for those at high risk for complications from flu.

Today, we have two options for seasonal 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 while the nasal spray vaccine is made with weakened but live viruses, individuals should discuss with their physicians which vaccine is most appropriate for them.

Specifically, the CDC warns that people with the following conditions should not receive a vaccination without first consulting a physician:

• 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 — a disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system, often signaled by weakness or tingling sensations in the legs, according to the National Institutes of Health — within six weeks of getting an influenza vaccine previously; and

• Children less than 6 months of age (influenza vaccine is not approved for use in this age group).

Also, people who have a moderate or severe illness with a fever should wait to get vaccinated until their symptoms lessen.

H1N1 flu

It is important to note that because the H1N1 virus represents an entirely new strain of the flu, protection from the H1N1 virus requires a separate vaccination. The CDC now recommends that the following groups be targeted for priority H1N1 vaccination:

• Pregnant women;

• People who live with or care for children younger than 6 months of age;

• Health care and emergency services personnel with direct patient contact;

• Children from the ages of 6 months old through 4; and

• Children ages 5 through 18 who have chronic medical conditions.

Other precautions

In addition to vaccinations, everyone can take some basic steps to protect themselves from the flu and the common cold. 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 and face-cloths in your household; regularly wash household linens; and regularly clean surfaces like bathroom sinks, kitchen counters and other high-traffic areas within your household. Such steps 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 each night will also bolster your immune system and help your body naturally fight the harmful effects of stress, the flu and many other illnesses.

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, call 617-442-8800 or visit http://www.dimock.org.