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Important prevention tips as flu season approaches

SPRINGFIELD — It’s a person’s first and most important defense in fighting this serious disease, which each year kills about 36,000 people nationwide and hospitalizes more than 100,000 people because of complications.
It’s the flu vaccine — and this year about 166 million flu shots, well over last year’s number, are being produced as part of an ongoing effort by public health officials to encourage more people to get vaccinated. Nearly half of children ages 6 months to 17 years were immunized last season, compared to 41 percent of all adults, estimates the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
According to Dr. Sarah Haessler from the Infectious Disease Division at Baystate Medical Center, the strains of flu expected to circulate during the 2011-2012 flu season are identical to last season, including the H1N1 virus.
Back in July, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the formulation of this year’s vaccine, which will protect against the type of influenza A virus that caused the H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic, another type of influenza A virus (H3N2), and a type of influenza B virus.
Similar to last year, the CDC is recommending that just about everyone be vaccinated — including those 6 months and older, unless the patient is allergic to eggs or his/her doctor recommends against it because of certain pre-existing conditions. Also, the CDC says that babies and children ages 6 months to 8 years-old will require two shots this year, unless they were vaccinated last year, in which case they will only need one.
And, the time to be vaccinated is now, Haessler noted.
“The CDC is saying that ample supplies should be available in September and October. Now is the time to see your primary care physician, or go to a flu clinic or pharmacy in your area and get your vaccine before the flu arrives,” she added about the unpredictable nature of when the flu season will hit.
Influenza activity usually lasts from October to May in the United States and normally peaks in January or February. However, seasonal flu activity can occur as late as May.
Haessler noted people should remember it takes one to two weeks after vaccination for antibodies to develop, which will protect them against the influenza (flu) virus infection.
“Protection only lasts for about a year, as a result, we need to be vaccinated again each year to raise our immune levels against the flu strains that are circulating in a given year,” Haessler said.
Seasonal flu vaccine is highly recommended for those who want to avoid the flu, and it is especially important for people who are at risk for complications — young children, pregnant women, people 50 years or older, people with diabetes, and heart, lung and kidney disease, and those who live in nursing homes.
Haessler, Baystate Health infectious disease specialist, dispelled the fallacy that people can get sick from the flu shot.
“The flu shot is made from inactivated (dead) virus vaccine that cannot give you the flu. There are a lot of colds and viruses around at this time of year, and some people may catch them shortly afterwards and erroneously attribute their illness to the vaccine,” Haessler said.
Symptoms of seasonal influenza virus include fever, headache, extreme tiredness, dry cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle aches, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
“What differentiates the flu from the common cold is that these symptoms usually come on very quickly and are much more severe,” Haessler said.
Although there is no cure for the flu, just as with the common cold, there are treatments to lessen the symptoms.
“Antiviral drugs can make your flu symptoms milder and help you feel better quicker, but you need to get to your doctor immediately when you suspect you have the flu,” Haessler said.
For those who do get the flu, it is recommended that they get plenty of rest, drink a lot of liquids, and avoid using alcohol and tobacco. Those who are sick can also take medications such as acetaminophen in order to relieve the fever and muscle aches. Children and teenagers who have flu-like symptoms, especially fever, should never be given aspirin.
While the single best way to prevent the flu is by getting a vaccination each year, Haessler said there are additional ways that people can protect themselves against the flu, including the following recommendations:
  • Wash hands often with soap and water, or use an alcohol-based hand rub, especially after coughing or sneezing.
  • Practice good health habits. Get plenty of sleep, be physically active, manage stress, drink plenty of fluids, and eat nutritious foods.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you sneeze and throw the tissue away after you use it.
  • Try not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs often spread this way.
  • Stay home from work, school, and social gatherings when you have the flu, so as to prevent others from getting sick.
For those who have a fear of needles, there is an alternative to the flu shot.
According to Haessler, there is a nasal-spray flu vaccine available for use in most healthy people, ages 2 to 49, who are not pregnant.
She said persons with any long-term health problems should check with their physician to be sure it is safe to opt for the nasal spray.
Yet another option for some might be a new intradermal vaccination approved in May by the FDA, which is injected under the skin rather than into the muscle. For those who don’t like needles, it is 90 percent shorter than the kind used for intramuscular injection.
While vaccines are safe, some may experience soreness, redness or swelling where the shot was given, as well as fever, headache, itching and fatigue.
“Most people have no adverse reactions to the flu shot, and life-threatening allergic reactions from vaccines are quite rare. However, you should call your doctor or visit the Emergency Department depending on the severity of your symptoms, for any unusual conditions such as a high fever, behavioral changes or signs of a severe allergic reaction, such as difficulty breathing, rapid heartbeat or dizziness,” Haessler said.
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