Though no one can predict exactly what this winter’s flu season will be like, it’s a pretty safe bet that at some point between October 2013 and March 2014, the community will be affected. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control says each year, on average, five to 20 percent of the population gets the flu; more than 200,000 people are hospitalized from flu complications; and about 36,000 people die from the illness.
“We usually see flu cases peak in our offices after the holidays, in January and February,” said Dr. Nicholas Brockert, a family practice physician on staff at Saint John Hospital, Leavenworth, Kan.
So what’s the best way to stay out of the doctor’s office this winter? “All adults should get vaccinated for the flu now,” Dr. Brockert said. “There’s no reason to delay. If you get vaccinated, immunity will protect you throughout the season.” It takes an adult’s immune system about two weeks to develop full immunity, and protection can last up to a year. The only group the vaccine is not recommended for is children six months and younger.
Dr. George Bures, a family practice physician with Providence Medical Group in Bonner Springs, also encourages everyone to get a flu vaccination.
“The more of us to get vaccinated, the better we all will be protected,” he said. “Everyone who works in our office and in the hospital gets vaccinated. It’s the best thing we can do to protect our patients and ourselves.”
This year’s flu vaccine is available as the traditional trivalent vaccination, or a new vaccine called the quadrivalent vaccine. The trivalent vaccination contains two strains of Type A influenza, and one strain of Type B. The quadrivalent vaccination contains two strains of Type A influenza and two strains of Type B.
“The type of influenza that makes us sickest is Type A,” Dr. Brockert said, “so either vaccine will provide good protection against it, but the quadrivalent vaccine does have protection for an additional Type B virus.”
The flu shot uses inactivated or “killed” virus to protect against the influenza viruses research suggests will be most common. Though the shot can’t cause the flu because it uses inactivated virus, some people do experience soreness at the injection site for a day or less. Others may have a low-grade fever, muscle pain, discomfort or weakness. Again, these side effects usually are short-lived and are an immune system response.
The nasal vaccine is equally effective at preventing the flu. However, it uses live attenuated virus, which can cause the individual to become sick in rare instances.
The flu vaccine also is now specially formulated for children and older adults.
“In our practice, we recommend everyone 65 and older take the high-dose vaccine,” Dr. Bures said. “Researchers have found that the regular flu vaccine wasn’t as effective at protecting older adults, so they developed this high-dose vaccine that triggers a bigger response from the immune system, and offers better protection.”
If it is their first time being vaccinated for the flu, young children, ages 6 months to 8 years, require two doses of the flu vaccine for full immunity, with four weeks between each vaccination.
To prevent the spread of the flu, Dr. Brockert said it’s always a good idea to wash your hands frequently for at least 15 seconds, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Other tips include:
• Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue away after use.
• Avoid close contact with sick people.
• If you get the flu, stay home from work or school and limit contact with others to keep from infecting them.
• Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. This is how germs spread.
“Next to hand washing, one of the best things you can do to keep from getting the flu is to avoid groups of people when you hear about outbreaks,” Dr. Bures said.
Though it’s not always easy to determine whether you have the flu, Dr. Bures said hallmarks of the illness include a fever above 102 degrees and body aches.
“Many people describe the flu as feeling like you’re been hit by a truck,” he said. If you do get the flu, see your doctor immediately for antiviral medications. These medications work best when started within 24-48 hours of experiencing flu-like symptoms. These prescription medicines fight the flu by keeping the virus from reproducing in the body. Antiviral drugs can make the illness milder, as well as prevent serious complications, such as pneumonia.
Bottom line? “The best thing we can all do for one another is to get vaccinated,” Dr. Brockert said. That improves the odds that this year’s flu season will be a mild one. The flu vaccine is available from local primary care physicians and pharmacies. More information about the flu vaccination is available at the Centers for Disease Control website: www.cdc.gov.
- Story from Pat McBratney, Providence Medical Center