Monday Medical: Fend off the flu with a shot
October 22, 2007
Down under in Australia, where the seasons are reversed, peak influenza season has come and gone for 2007. Flu cases reported were three times greater than normal. Hawaii already has reported some early cases, and experts are worried that this flu season might be heavier than usual.
There is one thing that you can do to protect yourself: Get a flu shot. Plenty of vaccine will be available – up to 132 million doses – and it’s recommended for anyone at risk of complications and anyone likely to come in contact with such individuals.
“Even if you belong to neither of these groups, there’s no reason to pass up the opportunity to protect yourself,” said Meg Montgomery, infection prevention coordinator at Yampa Valley Medical Center.
The flu is an upper respiratory viral infection with symptoms similar to those of the common cold but much more severe. Whereas cold symptoms may come on gradually, the flu is likely to hit you hard on the first day with fever, chills, headache and a generalized achy feeling.
Like a cold, the flu is viral rather than bacterial and, as a result, cannot be treated with antibiotics. Antiviral medications can decrease the severity and duration of the flu.
“It is always best to use antiviral drugs within 12 to 48 hours of when you first begin to feel the symptoms,” Montgomery said.
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Serious cases of flu can cause complications such as pneumonia. In a normal year, the flu kills about 36,000 Americans and sends about 226,000 to the hospital. Most of those who die are older than age 65. Also at risk are children younger than 2 and persons with chronic medical conditions affecting the heart, lungs or immune system.
For children and young adults, the flu is rarely a life-threatening event. But they are the ones most likely to catch and spread the virus, and the illness can take away precious days of work and study.
“Even if you feel you are a healthy adult who could fight off the infection, the people you come in contact with may not be able to,” Montgomery said. “You can pass along the flu virus before you even know you are sick yourself.”
Seniors age 65 and older are especially at risk of flu complications because they have a reduced response to vaccination. They produce fewer infection-fighting antibodies and at a slower pace than younger adults. That makes it all the more important for seniors to get immunized early in the season so that antibodies have ample time to develop.
“We always recommend that adults over the age of 65 get immunized before November 15,” Montgomery said. “While an immunized senior may still get the flu, symptoms will not be as severe, and there will be less likelihood of complications.”
There are a few who should not get the flu shot. These include anyone with a moderate to severe illness with fever; severe allergies to chicken eggs or the vaccine; or recently diagnosed Guillain-Barre syndrome.
The traditional flu shot is made from a killed or inactivated virus so there is no possibility of getting the flu from the shot itself. The alternative form of immunization, a nasal spray, is made from live, weakened flu virus. It doesn’t cause the flu either, but it can cause mild symptoms and for that reason it is not recommended for high-risk individuals.
Why not get a flu shot? Montgomery said some people think the shot will make them sick. Those who have had previous flu shots should feel no discomfort.
“If you are getting a flu shot for the first time ever, you may experience body aches, but if you take a little bit of Tylenol or ibuprofen you’ll be fine,” she said. “There will be no respiratory symptoms.”
Unfortunately, the flu can happen to you unless you take action to prevent it. Your first defense is immunization.
Christine McKelvie is public relations director at Yampa Valley Medical Center.