A simple way to keep the flu away

Boy with flu laying in bedSeasonal influenza — the flu — is caused by one of several strains of influenza viruses (type A or B) that infect the nose, throat and lungs. The flu makes life miserable for a week or two for many people — and can be deadly for some. Flu season can begin as early as October and peak anywhere from late December to early April.

“Every year, millions of people are infected with influenza,” says Jaime Fergie, MD, infectious disease specialist at Driscoll Children’s Hospital. “Hundreds of children succumb to this illness yearly; many will be hospitalized and many more will be seen in emergency rooms and physicians’ offices.“

You can avoid the flu this season by taking one simple step: get a flu immunization.  Unfortunately, some people think that getting a flu immunization is too much trouble or costs too much. Or, they think that a flu immunization will make them sick or make them more likely to catch the flu or colds.

Why immunize?

“The best way to prevent this infection is to receive the yearly influenza immunization,” Dr. Fergie says.  Depending on your age, you can do that in one of two ways:

  • With a flu shot, given with a needle. This form of the vaccine contains killed virus and is approved for persons older than six months of age.
  • With a nasal-mist vaccine. This form contains live, weakened flu viruses that can’t cause the flu. This form is approved for people from two to 49 years of age. Exceptions are those who are pregnant or have diabetes, a weakened immune system, heart problems or chronic respiratory disorders like asthma. Check with your healthcare provider to see if the nasal-mist vaccine is right for you.

Children between ages six months and eight years who were never immunized or received only one dose of vaccine in the previous year should get two full doses of vaccine, one month apart.

Healthcare providers also emphasize flu shots for women who are pregnant or plan to be pregnant during flu season. The CDC says flu immunizations are OK for breastfeeding mothers.

Talk with your healthcare provider first

Some people shouldn’t be immunized for the flu before talking with their healthcare provider. You should consult your healthcare provider if you have any of the following conditions:

  • You have a severe allergy — like an anaphylactic reaction — to chicken eggs.
  • You had previously developed Guillian-Barré syndrome in the six weeks after getting a flu shot.
  • You currently have an illness with a fever. Wait until symptoms improve before getting the vaccine.

Children younger than six months of age should not be immunized against the flu. Flu vaccines haven’t been approved for that age group.

Preventative steps

Flu viruses are spread by contact with droplets sneezed or coughed from an infected person. Inhaling the droplets is the most common cause for getting the flu. Touching objects on which droplets have landed also infects many people. You can spread the virus to others before you feel sick yourself. You are contagious a day before symptoms begin and up to five days afterward.

You can protect yourself against the flu by doing simple things like washing your hands before eating and not putting your hands near your face or in your mouth. You don’t need special cleansers when washing your hands. Washing for at least 20 seconds with ordinary soap works fine. If someone in your family has the flu, you can keep surfaces clear of the virus by wiping them with a solution of one part bleach to ten parts water.

Another effective means of flu prevention is humidity. The flu bug exists in higher quantities in dry nasal and oral passages, which is one reason why flu epidemics occur in dry winter months. Raise the humidity in your workplace and at home to keep your nasal passages and mouth moist. Your body will then be better able to flush out the flu bug.

Flu facts

Don’t believe the rumor that a flu immunization can give you a mild case of influenza. It’s impossible. Neither form of the vaccine — by injection or nasal spray — contains a form of the flu virus that can give you the flu. The injected form of the vaccine is made from pieces of dead flu virus cells. The nasal spray contains live viruses that have been damaged so they can’t cause a major infection.

When you are injected with the flu vaccine, your body reacts as if it has been infected with the actual living virus; it makes antibodies that provide immunity against the real virus. These antibodies remain at high levels for only six months to nine months. These disappearing antibody levels are one reason why you need to be revaccinated each year.

The main reason you should be revaccinated yearly is that the flu virus is constantly changing and evolving into new strains. Each year, the CDC tries to determine which flu strain will be predominant. The CDC works with vaccine manufacturers to make the specific vaccine that will fight the predicted strain.

If you are concerned about the cost of a flu immunization, check with your local health department for locations in your area where free flu shots are given.