As you probably have heard, we are in the middle of the most severe seasonal influenza epidemic in almost a decade. Perhaps you are wondering if there is anything that you can and should do about it for your own personal health and that of those you care about.
Many people use the term “flu” loosely, such that every cold or diarrheal illness is commonly referred to as “the flu.”
To be clear, there are many viruses circulating this time of year that are not influenza virus. What typically sets influenza virus apart is its severity.
Influenza virus usually hits quick and hard with fairly sudden onset of fatigue, muscle aches, headache, high fever and chills as well as nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat and cough. Some folks also experience stomach upset with vomiting and/or diarrhea.
Flu virus spreads from one person to the next through contact with respiratory secretions – think tears, boogers and spit. These things wind up on the hands when you touch your face and on everything else when you forget to clean your hands.
Because flu virus can live for up to 12 hours on objects such as countertops and doorknobs, the unsuspecting person after you – whether co-worker or family member – may be the next flu victim. As a potential victim, consider that the virus needs to get to the eyes, mouth or nose to get in your body.
Pearl No. 1: Don’t touch your face, at least not without washing your hands first.
Pearl No. 2: Whether you are sick and don’t want to spread your illness or well and don’t want to get sick, wash your hands often.
Coughs and sneezes propel tiny droplets up to 2 to 3 feet unless covered. If you are the sneezer, it helps to cover that sneeze with your sleeve or elbow. If you are the potential victim, then stay out of the line of fire by keeping a distance of about 3 feet.
You might be asking if it’s too late to get vaccinated for influenza. The short answer is “no.” While some estimates indicate that flu activity presently is peaking, influenza season can last well into March or even April.
Flu vaccine is relatively effective, providing immunity in up to two-thirds of those vaccinated. In general, the vaccine supply this year has been good, and the vaccine is known to cover the most severe strains circulating this season. Vaccine comes in two varieties and several strengths.
Inactivated flu vaccine is the kind you get in a shot. Despite widespread belief to the contrary, it does not cause the flu. Live attenuated vaccine comes in a nasal spray and contains a weakened live virus that is safe for most older children and adults.
It cannot be given to very young children, the elderly or those with certain chronic health conditions.
Young children require a two-dose series of flu vaccine one month apart during the first year they are vaccinated and then a booster dose each year thereafter.
Elderly adults benefit from a higher dose of inactivated flu vaccine.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Ute Health Center in Towaoc.