by Bonnie M. Word, MD
Seasonal Influenza, more commonly called the flu is caused by a virus. In the U.S. annual epidemics usually occur in late fall and continue through early spring. Sometimes infections can cause a mild respiratory illness such as a sore throat, or runny nose .It can also cause pneumonia. Many think getting the flu is just like catching a cold. However, If you fall into a high risk group, you are more likely to have a serious infection or develop a complication.
Some high risk groups include: children younger than two years of age, people older than 65, persons with asthma, diabetes, and sickle cell disease. Other high risk groups include pregnant women, nursing home residents and residents of other chronic long term care facilities. Not sure if you are in a high risk group ? Ask your doctor.
Anyone can get the flu but rates of infection are highest in children. In contrast, the risk for complications, hospitalizations and death occur more often in adults over 65 and those individuals who have some of the medical conditions listed above. Influenza should not be taken lightly. There are an average of 226,000 influenza related hospitalizations and approximately 36,000 influenza related deaths that occur annually in the United States!
Options for Controlling Influenza:
Annual vaccination is the most effective method for preventing influenza. Routine immunization is now recommended for all persons at least 6 months of age and older. There are different types of vaccines available; an injectable vaccine that is composed of killed virus (inactivated vaccine) and a nasally administered one which has live virus. You have to be at least two years old and not belong to any of the high risk groups to receive the nasally administered vaccine. There are no restrictions to receiving the injectable vaccine. There is also a new inactivated vaccine that is not administered deep into the muscle but you have to be 18 through 64 years of age to receive it. Similar to last season, there is an injectable version only available for those older than 65 years. It is like the inactivated vaccine but is has a higher concentration of some of the killed virus compared to the regular injectable vaccine. Seniors over 65 years can receive either version of the inactivated vaccine. Remember, some kids need 2 doses of vaccine. Speak with your doctor.
If you do get the flu, there are antiviral medications that can be prescribed but it is important that you start taking them shortly after you are diagnosed especially if you are in one of the high risk groups for developing complications.
Since the flu virus is primarily spread person to person through coughing, sneezing or having close contact with someone with the flu the following strategies will be useful:
• Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. If a tissue is not available cough or sneeze into your elbow.
• Wash your hand frequently with soap and water. If soap is not available use an alcohol based hand rub
• Avoid close contact with sick people as much as possible
• Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
• If you or your child has a flu like illness, limit your contact with others. Ideally, when sick you should stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever has resolved unless it is to seek medical care.
• In the work area, clean frequently touched objects and surfaces on a regular basis. This includes keyboards, doorknobs and telephones
• Keep an adequate supply of tissues, disposable wipes and alcohol based rubs at the work place
One final reminder, you cannot get the flu if you receive the inactivated flu vaccine. It’s made with killed virus!!
Bonnie Word, MD has more than 20 years of expertise in Infectious Disease and 10 years experience in Travel Medicine. She is board-certified in Infectious Disease and Pediatrics. Dr. Word also the medical director for the Houston Travel Medicine Clinic in Houston. The clinic specializes in education, vaccination and medications that help to ensure healthy travel experiences. She can be reached at 713-652-4900. houstontravelmedicine.com