- - Friday, October 6, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Flu season is at our doorsteps and already taking a toll with many communities reporting roughly double the amount of hospitalizations compared to the same time period as last year. And while the timing varies in different parts of the country, most flu activity — influenza-like illness, hospitalizations and, sadly, even deaths – occurs between now through May.  

Flu shots are the most effective way to prevent influenza and its complications. And, this year, health officials are turning-up the volume in advising early flu vaccinations as we brace for what is being anticipated as one of the biggest flu seasons on record. Additionally, there are several important steps we can take to help prevent contracting and spreading the virus.

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

What is the seasonal flu?
A highly contagious and serious illness caused by influenza viruses. The flu attacks the respiratory system, causing a runny nose, cough, and sore throat—similar to the common cold. Additionally, it can wreak havoc over the entire body with headaches, muscle or body aches, fever of 100oF or higher, chills, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea (more common in children).

And, it doesn’t stop there, it can lead to a number of complications, particularly in children aged 6 months to 5 years, pregnant women, adults older than 65 years of age, people with weak immune systems, and those with chronic health conditions (e.g., heart disease, lung disease, diabetes).  
What complications can result from the flu? They range from moderate to serious and include:
    •    Ear and sinus infections
    •    Bronchitis, pneumonia
    •    Dehydration
    •    Inflammation of the heart (myocarditis), muscle and brain (encephalitis)
    •    Multi-organ failure of the kidneys (that may require hemodialysis) or respiratory system (that may require placement of a breathing tube and being hooked up to a breathing machine)
    •    Sepsis (the body’s life-threatening response to infection)

In addition, those with chronic health conditions may experience serious worsening of their disease that requires hospitalization and, in some cases, can result in death. Examples include:
    •    A person with heart disease can have an increased work load on their heart (increased heart rate from fever or dehydration) resulting in chest pain and even a heart attack
    •    Diabetics generally have a more difficult time fighting infections and the added stress can result in dangerously elevated blood sugar levels. Those with insulin dependent diabetes may even enter into a diabetic coma.
    •    People with lung illnesses such as asthma, chronic bronchitis, or emphysema can experience wheezing, shortness or breath, and decreases in their oxygen levels
 
Widespread Impact: In the United States, despite having greater access to vaccinations and superior living conditions to many countries, we still see millions of illnesses, hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations, and, on average, 24,000 deaths a year (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

Many forget that this is a major killer—and have the notion that the flu shot really is not necessary. And despite the fact that the flu is particularly dangerous in young children and those over the age of 65 years, only about seventy-five percent of babies and toddlers were vaccinated and only about sixty-six percent of older adults were vaccinated last flu season.
 
Best Method of Prevention and Protection Against Influenza – The Flu Shot
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.
And, too, it is especially important in those who are considered to be at an increased risk for complications.

It is important to note that those who are immunized and still catch the flu, generally have a decreased risk of complications, hospitalizations, and death. In other words, the flu shot blunts the impact and offers a level of protection.

It usually takes our body’s immune system up to 2 weeks to manufacture the antibodies that can attack the influenza virus, so it is important to get vaccinated now—don’t delay! Also, infants and children up to age 8 years of age receiving the flu shot for the first time may need two doses of the vaccine (four weeks apart) to become fully immunized. So, it is important that they get their first dose now so they can complete both doses ASAP.
 
And, too, unlike some other immunizations that offer lifetime or many years of protection (e.g., pneumococcal, measles), you must get the flu shot every year. This is because the circulating influenza viruses change from year to year and also immunity to them wanes (fades).   

Flu Vaccines: Do not delay your vaccination and discuss options and forms with your health care provider or pharmacist, for which is best for you.
    •    Trivalent vaccines protect against two influenza A viruses (H1N1 and H3N2) and an influenza B virus
    •    Quadrivalent vaccines protect against two influenza A viruses and two influenza B viruses.
    •    High dose vaccine is designed specifically for people 65 years and older and contains 4 times the amount of antigen as the regular flu shot. As we age, our immune system weakens and the antibody response after getting the traditional flu vaccine may not be as high as it used to be.
    •    Adjuvant flu vaccine contains a compound that enhances our immune response and may be suited for those who are over 65 years of age or have a lower protective immune response
    •    Needleless or jet injector uses a high-pressure, narrow stream of trivalent flu vaccine fluid to penetrate the skin instead of a hypodermic needle. It is approved for use in people between 18 to 64 years of age.
    •    Of note, the nasal spray version of the vaccine, which has been popular among children and those with needle phobias, is not available. Research showed that it was only three percent more effective against the flu compared to those who did not get vaccinated. Essentially, it was ineffective but provided a false sense of protection.
 
Where to 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 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 sick leave.  

Can I get sick from the flu shot?
No, 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.  

Other everyday preventive actions: 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 cough or sneeze 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.

Available treatments for flu:
There are three FDA-approved influenza antiviral drugs that your health care 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 avoid taking medications 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!

The flu virus is common and unpredictable. It can be a nasty illness, even fatal.  While some experience milder symptoms, they can be awful to deal with, including being unable to work for days, needing to look after an ill child home from school or visiting the very sick who have been hospitalized. It’s important to get immunized, not just to protect yourself but also those around you.

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