FLU SEASON ON THE HORIZON… GET YOUR FLU SHOTS NOW!
Anyone who has ever had an encounter with one of the particularly nasty strains of influenza probably won’t have to be reminded to get their flu shot this fall. Just mention the word “flu,” and they’ll share their “war stories” about battles with the “Asian” or “Hong-Kong” strains. The rest of us, however, may need some gentle prodding.
What many people casually dismiss as a minor — albeit inconvenient — ailment, is actually the sixth leading cause of death in this country, claiming an average of 20,000 lives each year. Influenza, or the “flu,” visits the U.S. between November and April, with the most widespread outbreaks beginning in late December. About 90 million cases of the flu are reported here each year.
The flu virus is spread by droplets sent airborne by an infected person’s sneezes and coughs. The germs are just waiting in the air, on surfaces — and on the hands that touch them. The first to “share” the virus are usually school children who bring the “gift” home to their families. Kids are easily infected because they have had little experience with the flu in the past, and their immune systems are not fully developed. They are in close contact with other youngsters in closed classrooms, which make ideal breeding grounds for the viruses because children are notorious for not washing their hands or covering their mouths when they sneeze or cough.
So, how do you know if you have the flu? This is not as simple a question as it seems. There are many different kinds of “flu” which are all caused by some virus but the secret is to figure out which of the three groups of viruses is responsible for this particular misery. The symptoms range in severity, and can mimic those of the common cold and other respiratory infections. Most flu sufferers complain of a cough, stuffy nose, fever (higher in children), a sore throat, headaches, and often muscle aches and fatigue. A cold may go away in several days to a week, but the flu can linger on for up to two weeks. Unfortunately, for people in the high risk category, symptoms can worsen and develop into potentially life-threatening medical emergencies.
Each year, 9-10 months in advance of “flu season,” the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee predicts which of three types of influenza viruses are most likely to occur, and then instructs that the appropriate vaccine be developed to combat it. (For more in-depth information about the types of viruses and the history of flu outbreaks, visit the Centers for Disease Control’s site )
According to cardiologist Juan R. Amell, M.D., founder and medical director of Red Oak Cardiovascular Center, “We advise everyone 65 and older to get a flu shot each year. It is especially important that people with heart disease and those who have pulmonary diseases (including asthma), diabetes, or any problem with their immune system have the vaccination. The flu is extremely contagious and a loving hug or a kiss from a grandchild can innocently spread the disease. Although the flu may pose little threat to an otherwise healthy child — or even to his or her parents — respiratory complications for older adults with these chronic illnesses can be potentially life-threatening. This same group of patients should also be given the Pneumococcal vaccine to protect against pneumonia and certain blood infections caused by the pneumococcal bacteria. ”
In addition to seniors and heart patients, others considered at high risk who should receive flu shots include babies under six months of age, older adults who live in nursing homes or assisted living facilities, health care workers, educators, everyone with asthma, and women who will be in their second or third trimester of pregnancy when flu season hits. Anyone who wants to minimize their chances for getting the flu this season should also get the vaccine.
Since it takes one to two weeks after the vaccination for the antibody to develop, the best time to get this protection is during October through mid-November when people are usually relatively healthy and have not yet been exposed to the flu. When a person gets the injection late in the season, it is possible that they have already been exposed to the ailment.
“When someone who has had the flu shot and still gets sick,” explained Dr. Amell, “it is possible that they have already been exposed to the flu. If a person gets sick a few days after getting the shot, they think this is a reaction to the vaccination. Actually, less than one percent of the people to take the shot have any reaction to it at all.”
There is no cure for the flu, but there are certainly a lot of common sense things families can do to minimize their risk of infection or spreading the flu to other family members. Anyone with flu-like symptoms should have their own eating utensils, washcloths and towels, they should stay in bed away from other family members, get plenty of rest, and drink a lot of fluids. If the symptoms persist after four or five days — especially if the fever continues — see a physician.
It is important to remember that children should not be given aspirin when they have the flu because studies have linked its use to the development of Reye’s syndrome in youngsters recovering from the virus.
Colds and flu generally flourish during winter months because people stay indoors more and there is less ventilation. The immune system may also be less effective during the colder months when people exercise less and tend to eat fewer fresh fruits and vegetables.
Dr. Amell says there is no better time than during the winter months to emphasize the importance of regular hand washing and keeping young fingers away from their faces, and to use a disinfectant to wipe off kitchen and bathroom surfaces to kill unwanted germs.