The Flu is Back!

Learn how to protect yourself and everyone around you.

by Jamie Miles • Editor
Photograph: Courtesy of iStock

Forgot to get a flu shot? No problem. Flu season peaks in January and lasts through March, and vaccinations are still widely available. “It is never too late to get vaccinated,” says Centers of Disease Control spokesperson Jeff Diamond, who adds: “You want to get your flu shot as soon as possible since it takes two weeks to become fully protected after you get the vaccine.”
 
Last year H1N1, or swine flu, hit the world hard, claiming over 18,000 lives. This year, reports show that H1N1 is not causing much illness. A bigger worry is a strain known as H3N2. “H3N2 is particularly hard on the elderly,” Diamond says.
 
H3N2, H1N1 and a strain called B have already emerged in the southeastern states and have jumped to New York state. “All three strains are included in the current influenza vaccine. There is an excellent match between what’s in the vaccine and the viruses that are in circulation, so we have an optimal opportunity for prevention,” says William Schaffner, MD, who specializes in preventative medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville.
 
Last year, vaccine shortages got a lot of publicity early in the swine flu season. This year, 115 million doses of the vaccine have been produced for U.S. use, the most ever. Ironically, the abundant supply could stand in the way of more Americans getting the shots. “If you want to get people vaccinated, the single most important thing you can do is declare you have a vaccine shortage. Suddenly everybody wants some and they line up,” Schaffner says.

One big reason to get vaccinated: You help not just yourself, but also those around you. “There are older people who are frail or whose bodies are just not going to respond optimally to the vaccine, so we protect them by being protected ourselves,” says Schaffner. Women above the age of 40 are especially at risk for spreading the flu because many are caregivers for a young child or an elderly parent. “You’re in the sweet spot for contacting the various demographic areas that would be susceptible to the flu,” Diamond says.

For further protection of the elderly, whose immune systems may no longer function optimally, the drug company Sanofi Pasteur recently introduced a more potent vaccine, Fluzone High-Dose. Approved for those 65 and over, the vaccine provides three times the amount of antigen than is contained in the regular flu shot. Fluzone High-Dose is not yet widely available.

Although many doctors and healthcare professionals expect a fairly average flu season this winter, it’s impossible to predict the exact extent of the disease’s spread. You can always improve your odds of staying healthy by following a few simple practices: wash your hands frequently, use hand sanitizer often, keep hydrated and take a multi-vitamin.
 
Flu symptoms can be difficult to distinguish from those of a cold because many of them—such as a stuffy nose, sore throat, and dry cough—overlap. With the flu, you’ll also experience aches in your body. “You just want to go to bed,” Schaffner says.
 
If you suspect you have the flu, notify your doctor within the first 48 hours. Anti-viral drugs such as Tamiflu and Relenza can reduce the severity of infection by stopping the virus from multiplying in your body. CDC spokesperson Diamond endorses the restorative powers of chicken soup. The garlic it contains acts like an expectorant, helping to loosen mucus and relieve congestion. Also, the warm broth soothes your throat, and the protein and vegetables strengthen your immune system.
 
Another important thing to remember— you remain contagious for 24 hours after the symptoms go away. “If you have the flu and show up at the office and get everyone else sick, you haven’t done anyone a favor,” Diamond says. “Stay home.”

First Published January 24, 2011

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