Spread the Word, Not the Flu
Autumn is a special time of year; the air is cool and crisp, the leaves on the trees turn brilliant colors, and the apple orchard is open for business. Despite the beauty of the season, there is something dangerous lurking in the air.
Seasonal influenza (better known as “the flu”) is a serious and contagious respiratory illness caused by the influenza virus. While our familiarity with “the flu” can cause us to let our guard down, influenza is a very serious illness that can lead to hospitalization and in some cases death. Those at high risk for serious complications include young children, individuals over age 65, pregnant women, and those with certain chronic health conditions such as heart or lung disease and diabetes. Even healthy people can get sick enough to miss several days of work or school.
Many people use the term flu to describe a gastrointestinal illness with nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting. This is not the same as seasonal flu that has a vaccine available. Seasonal influenza infects the nose, throat, and lungs. Droplets made when someone coughs, sneezes, or speaks spread the virus, and these infected droplets can land in the noses or mouths of others that are close by. The virus can also be spread by touching your nose, mouth, or eyes after touching surfaces where droplets have landed.
Flu symptoms come on suddenly and include fever, feeling feverish or chills, cough and sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, and fatigue. Onset of symptoms from time of exposure is one to four days, with an average of two days. You may be contagious and spread the flu to others before you feel sick; you are most contagious three to four days after developing symptoms, lasting up to five to seven days. Most people will get better and feel relief from their symptoms in several days to two weeks, but some people develop complications such as bacterial pneumonia, sinus and ear infections, and worsening of chronic health conditions.
The single best way to protect against the flu is annual vaccination. Not only does the vaccine protect you, but it also prevents you from spreading the virus to people around you. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that everyone 6 months old and older get a flu vaccine annually; this includes pregnant women and those with chronic health conditions. It is best to get vaccinated before the flu begins to spread. Outbreaks of flu are seen as early as October and as late as May with the peak being between December and February. The CDC recommends getting the vaccine by the end of October; it is, however, never too late to get the vaccine, even in January.
After receiving the vaccine, it takes two weeks to develop antibodies that protect you from contracting the flu. Vaccination is required each year because the immune protection of the vaccine declines over time; it eventually “wears off.” Side effects include redness, soreness and swelling at the injection site, low-grade fever, or aches. Serious reactions rarely occur.
Flu viruses are constantly changing from one season to the next and the vaccine, therefore, will need updating. This is another reason vaccination is recommended annually. Experts must select which flu viruses to include in the vaccine months in advance so that the vaccine will be ready and available in time for flu season. Experts try to predict the three to four most common or deadly flu viruses of the season and include them in the vaccine. It is not possible to predict with certainty which flu viruses will predominate the season; the hopes are that the vaccine will be a good match. If it is not and you become ill with the flu, your symptoms and course of illness should be milder than if you had not gotten vaccinated.
The flu vaccine cannot cause you to become ill with the flu; the vaccines are made with inactivated virus or with no virus and therefore cannot cause infection. If you do become ill around the time you receive your vaccine, it can be due to a few reasons. It is possible that the predicted virus was not a good match. Exposure to the flu virus may have occurred before you had your vaccine or before you developed antibodies. You could have become ill from another virus such as the common cold.
If you become ill with the flu, antiviral medications are available with a prescription. These medications must be started within 48 hours of experiencing symptoms. These medications may reduce the course of illness by one to two days and can prevent serious complications from flu. These medications, however, can be costly and have side effects.
Vaccination is the best way to prevent contracting or spreading the flu. You can receive vaccinations at your physician’s office, most retail pharmacies, through your employer, or at the local health department. Also, remember to cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze or cough and practice good hand washing. •
BY TANYA MUNGER, DNP, FNP-BC, AP-PMN