Flu Season 

Screen Shot 2015-05-23 at 7.41.16 PMOur flu season is around the corner. And while the timing varies in different parts of the country, most flu activity— influenza-like illness, hospitalizations, and sadly even deaths – will occur between October 2016 and run into May 2017.

Every year is a new year when it comes to flu season – presenting its own uniqueness with regards to being earlier, running later, a milder or heavier season. New flu vaccines are released each year to keep up with rapidly adapting flu viruses. There is one constant from year-to-year that does not change – influenza is a respiratory infection that can cause serious complications, particularly to young children, older adults and people with certain medical conditions. Flu shots are the most effective way to prevent influenza and its complications.

Flu shots are available now and experts – along with The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – are recommending receiving the flu vaccine as soon as possible. After all, it takes about two weeks after the vaccination is administered for our body’s immune system to fully respond.

It is important we start taking action now to make sure we keep ourselves, children, and loved ones healthy and flu-free. 

Dr. Nina’s What You Need To Know: About Influenza – The Seasonal Flu

What is the seasonal flu?

A highly contagious illness caused by influenza viruses. Similar to the common cold, the flu affects the respiratory system—nose, throat, and lungs—and can cause a runny nose, cough, and sore throat.  But, unlike the common cold, the flu also attacks the entire body–a fever of 100oF or higher, headaches, cough, body aches, chills, fatigue, and nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea (more common in children). The flu is a serious disease and can lead to complications, hospitalization, and even death.

Who are at an increased risk for complications from the flu?

Anyone can come down with the flu—young and old, men and women, and even those who were not affected last year or the year before. And while the vast majority will recover within two weeks, children aged 6 months to 5 years, pregnant women, adults older than 65 years of age, and those with chronic health conditions (heart disease, diabetes, lung diseases) have an increased risk of complications.

What complications can result from the flu?

They include respiratory infection, ear and sinus infections, bronchitis, pneumonia, and dehydration.  In addition, those with chronic health conditions can experience serious worsening of their disease that requires hospitalization and as noted, in some cases can result in death.

Some examples include: a person with heart disease can have an increased work load on their heart resulting in chest pain and even a heart attack; diabetics may develop dangerously elevated blood sugar levels; and those with lung illnesses such as asthma, chronic bronchitis, or emphysema can experience wheezing, shortness or breath, and decreases in their oxygen levels.

How many people does it affect?

In the United States, despite having greater access to vaccinations and superior living conditions to many countries, we still typically see millions of illnesses, hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations, and thousands or sometimes tens of thousands of deaths.

What should I do to protect myself from the flu?

Get immunized – it not only protects you but those around you! The CDC recommends that everyone over the age of 6 months get their yearly flu vaccine—it is the first and most important step in protecting against this serious contagious illness. And, too, it is especially important in those who are considered to be at an increased risk for complications. Although the flu shot is not 100 percent effective, research shows that those who are immunized and still catch the flu, have a decreased risk of complications, hospitalizations, and death. In other words, it offers a level of protection.

After receiving the flu shot, it usually takes our body’s immune system up to two weeks to manufacture the antibodies that can attack the influenza virus. So make sure to get vaccinated, now.

And if you have a child between the ages of 6 months to 8 years, they may need two doses of flu vaccine (four weeks apart) to become fully immunized against the flu. Make sure to discuss this with your child’s healthcare provider. 

How is the flu vaccine designed?

Disease investigators monitor global virus activity to predict which three or four strains of influenza will spread in the next season and should be covered by that year’s vaccine. Those scientists decided to change two out of three components for the main 2016 flu vaccine. The vaccine will contain protection against the hardy H1N1 virus known as the swine flu that caused an epidemic in 2009 plus a new H3N2 strain and a new influenza B strain. Some other versions of the vaccine include an additional B strain and a more potent shot for people older than 65.

The nasal spray version of the vaccine, popular among children and those with needle phobias, is not recommended for use this year. The FluMist spray did not work well against the strains of flu that circulated last winter and spring.

What are other everyday preventive actions I can take?

The influenza virus is most commonly spread via aerosolized droplets that can travel up to 6 feet. It is important to stay away from people who are coughing and sneezing.  The virus can also survive on surfaces or objects and infect a person if they touch their mouth or nose.

The flu can be contagious for up to a week after symptoms start, so it’s important for anyone who is infected to stay home from work or school.  Be attentive to hand washing and coughing or sneezing into a sleeve (or tissue) as it can help prevent the spread of the virus. And too, clean surfaces and objects that may be exposed.

Where can I get a flu vaccine?

Flu vaccines are offered at many doctor’s offices, clinics, health departments, pharmacies, and college health centers, as well as by many employers, and even by some schools. The majority of recipients have no out-of-pocket costs. And for those who do, it is typically less than $30 and MUCH cheaper than a doctor’s office or emergency room visit or taking vacation days.

Can I get sick from the flu shot?

I have heard a number of people state that they got the flu shortly after being immunized. Because the flu shot is formulated from inactivated/dead virus, this is impossible. However, when someone does get the flu shortly after, it is likely that they were exposed to the influenza virus before antibodies were formed. Again, it is important to note that even if this does occur, you are less likely to experience pneumonia, time lost from work, hospitalizations, and death. 

What treatments are available if I come down with the flu?

There are three FDA-approved influenza antiviral drugs—Oseltamivir, Zanamivir, and Peramivir—that your healthcare provider may prescribe to reduce symptoms, the duration of illness, and serious complications of the flu. These medications are most effected when started within 48 hours and should be considered, in particular, for those who are at an increased risk for flu complications. 

Over-the-counter medications are available to treat flu symptoms including fever, aches, sore throat, and runny and congested nose as well as post-nasal drip. Read the labels carefully and do not take medicines at the same time that have the same ingredients or have ingredients that would interact. If you are unsure, speak to the pharmacist.

It is also very important to drink plenty of fluids. Dehydration may occur because of fever, lack of appetite, vomiting, or diarrhea. And, of course, stay home, rest, and recover!

While the flu season is unpredictable, what is known is that it is knocking on our doors. It’s important to get immunized, not just to protect ourselves, but also our loved ones.  In addition, stay vigilant to take good care of your health by eating a balanced diet, staying active, getting plenty of sleep and managing stress –  all of which will go a long way in helping to boost immune function which may reduce chances of getting the flu.  Take good care – and take action now!!

Dr. Nina Radcliff is dedicated to her profession, her patients and her community, at large. She is passionate about sharing truths for healthy, balanced living as well as wise preventive health measures. 

She completed medical school and residency training at UCLA and has served on the medical faculty at The University of Pennsylvania. She is a Board Certified Anesthesiologist and a member of the American Society of Anesthesiologists where she serves on committees for Young Physicians and Communications. Author of more than 200 textbook chapters, research articles, medical opinions and reviews; she is often called upon by media to speak on medical, fitness, nutrition, and healthy lifestyle topics impacting our lives, today.