Mark Appleman, MD, Newport Hospital’s infection control committee chair
The influenza virus, or flu, is easily transmitted from infected people via expelled droplets from coughing and sneezing, which can also contaminate surfaces such as doorknobs, handles, bottles and elevator buttons. People with influenza infections feel horrible with high fevers, severe chills, severe muscle aches and headaches, and cough. (Vomiting and diarrhea are not usually associated with the flu.)
And, every year, a significant number of patients die from the flu and its complications, especially young children, the elderly, and people with chronic conditions such as diabetes or heart disease. Many people with other milder viral infections or cold symptoms wrongly assume they have the flu; however, true influenza virus infections are not subtle or mild. If you do get the flu, you will miss at least a week of work or school, and you may spread the infection to other people in your family or at work. Thus, prevention of influenza infections is very important.
During a flu outbreak, avoiding areas with a large number of people close together may be helpful. This can be difficult, especially during the holidays. Frequent hand sanitizing, either with soap and water, or with alcohol-based products, such as hand sanitizers, is very important. Buy a small container of hand sanitizer and keep it in your pocket or purse, and, most importantly, use it. If you do get sick, wash your hands frequently, and cough or sneeze into a tissue or into your sleeve near the elbow, which will help prevent others from getting ill.
The most important means to prevent the flu is to get vaccinated every year. The vaccines are very effective, although not all people respond equally well. Yearly vaccination is required because the vaccine only lasts for six to eight months and the virus itself can mutate or change its composition easily.
The vaccines are readily available, and there are several different formulations to choose from. Most people get the flu shot, which is made from killed (inactivated) viruses. Thus, these vaccines cannot give you “the flu”, and the most common side effect is mild soreness at the injection site. The vaccines are extremely safe, and are monitored closely for any related side effects. The vaccines will typically protect against three or four different strains. There is a vaccine available also for people with egg allergies, and there are vaccines without thimerosol, for those who are concerned about that preservative. Everyone over the age of six months should get vaccinated, but it is especially important for health care workers, children under five and adults over 50, pregnant women, and those with chronic conditions such as diabetes, emphysema, heart disease, etc. Household contacts and care givers of any of these groups should also get vaccinated.
A live virus vaccine, which has been weakened considerably, is also available or people from two to 49 years old. This vaccine is somewhat more effective than the injection, and it is given into the nose as a spray, so there’s no pain from a shot. Side effects are usually very mild and may include a runny nose, or a mild headache or fever.
It’s best to get vaccinated now, before a flu outbreak develops, as it takes at least two weeks for the vaccination to be protective. There are some oral anti-viral antibiotics that can be used to treat the flu, but to be effective they must be started very early after the onset of symptoms. Patients at high risk for severe disease as mentioned earlier should seek medical attention early when ill in the event of a flu outbreak. Otherwise, treatment is fluids, analgesics such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, and bed rest.
If you’ve ever had the flu, you know you don’t want to get it again! Get your flu vaccination now, sanitize your hands frequently, and stay well this winter.
Read more about how to prevent and care for the flu.
in the Newport Daily News.