Influenza season is in full force and often creates a flood of questions. Let’s demystify the flu and answer the most frequently asked questions. When we do this, you also will understand why getting a flu shot can be life-saving.
What is the flu? Influenza is a virus, which is most active between October and May of each year. A unique quality about a virus is that it constantly adapts as it infects people by the rearrangement of its genetic material. That’s why the flu is tricky as it changes from year to year. H3N3 is the predominant type of influenza virus that has been identified this year.
Why must one be vaccinated annually? All viruses change when they infect humans or animals (the genetic code transforms the virus so that it can more readily infect the cell). Consequently, from year to year as the influenza virus changes, a vaccine must be developed to reflect the virus mutation. The flu shot causes the body to produce antibodies to fight a specific flu strain, which is what we want. Since antibodies decrease over time, and the virus changes, a flu shot should be administered on an annual basis. This year, the flu shot protects against three specific influenza types H1N1, H3N3, and B.
Should I get vaccinated now? If you have not been vaccinated, it’s not too late. Get a flu shot since the virus can attack as late as May. It takes about two weeks for the body to be protected against the flu, which explains why someone can get it even if recently vaccinated.
Who should get the flu shot? Anyone over the age of six months should be vaccinated, including pregnant women, care-givers, and the elderly (over 65 years). This is especially true for people who have chronic illnesses — asthma, emphysema and diabetes. The elderly, children, and chronically ill are at greater risk for complications from the flu, causing hospitalization and death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 3,700 people have been hospitalized and 20 children have died due to the flu so far this season. People who have egg allergies, prior severe reactions to flu vaccine, or Guillain-Barre Syndrome should talk to their doctor to determine if you should receive a flu shot.
Which medicines work against the flu? Relenza (zanamivir) and Tamiflu (oseltamivir), anti-viral medications, are effective against the flu. However, they only work during the first 24 to 48 hours when flu symptoms appear. Most healthy people will recover from the flu without medical intervention. But members of at-risk populations, including, but not limited to lung disease and diabetes, may benefit from medications. See your doctor early if you suspect you have the flu and they can determine if you need a medication.
What to do if you have the flu? Stay home from work or school to recover so you will not infect others. Rest, drink liquids, wash your hands, and use over-the-counter remedies for symptom management. Talk to your pharmacist or doctor for guidance. If you have confusion, difficulty breathing, or are unable to keep liquids down, see your doctor. In children, watch out for bluish color, crying without tears, lethargy or no energy, fast breathing, rash, and irritability. If you see this, do not delay: seek medical attention.
If you are in one of the high-risk groups, talk to your doctor about your risk for flu. If you have not had a flu shot, get one as soon as possible.
Sylvia E. Morris, MD, MPH, is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and holistic medicine. In addition to her clinical responsibilities, she speaks at many community forums and delivers health awareness presentations. Tell her what you think on Facebook and follow her on Twitter.