By Pure Matters
Unfortunately, some people think that getting a flu immunization is too much trouble or costs too much. Or, they swear that a flu immunization will make them sick or make them more likely to catch the flu--or even colds.
Influenza--the flu--is caused by one of several strains of influenza viruses (type A or B) that infect the nose, throat and lungs, making life miserable for a week or two for many people--and deadly for some. Flu season can peak anywhere from late December to early April, according to the CDC.
Your best defense against the flu is to get immunized. 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 all people over the age of 6 months.
- With a nasal-spray vaccine. This form contains live, weakened flu viruses that cannot cause the flu. This form is approved for healthy, non-pregnant people ages 2 to 49 years.
A flu vaccination is most important for children 6 to 59 months; adults ages 50 and older; anyone with a chronic disease; anyone who lives in a nursing home or other long-term care site; health care workers; and people who are in frequent contact with the elderly or chronically ill. The CDC says children 8 years old and younger who are immunized for the first time should get two full doses of vaccine, one month apart.
Doctors also advise flu shots for women who plan to be pregnant during flu season. Flu shots are OK for breast-feeding mothers, the CDC says.
Even if you don't fall into one of the above groups, however, you are still a candidate for the vaccine if you want to avoid the flu.
Talk to your doctor first
Some people should not be vaccinated for the flu before talking to their health care provider, the CDC says. These are reasons to talk your doctor:
- You have a severe allergy to chicken eggs.
- You have had a severe reaction to a flu immunization in the past.
- You developed Guillain-Barre syndrome within six weeks of a previous flu immunization.
Children younger than 6 months of age should not be immunized against the flu, because the flu vaccines have not been approved for that age group.
If you are ill with a moderate or severe illness that includes a fever, you should wait to get vaccinated until your symptoms lessen, the CDC says.
Other prevention steps
Flu viruses are spread by contact with droplets sneezed or coughed from an infected person. Inhaling the droplets is the most common route to getting the flu, but many people also become infected by touching objects on which droplets have landed. You can spread the virus to others before you feel sick yourself. The CDC says you are infectious 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 clean of the virus by wiping them with a solution of one part bleach to 10 parts water.
The other 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. By raising the humidity in your workplace and at home to keep your nasal passages and mouth moist, your body will be better able to flush out the flu bug.
Rooting out rumors
Don't believe the rumor that a flu shot can give you even a mild case of influenza. It is 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 particles of dead flu virus cells, and 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 and makes antibodies that provide immunity against the real virus. These antibodies remain at high levels for only six to nine months. These waning antibody levels are one reason why you need to be revaccinated each year.
The main reason you should be revaccinated yearly is the flu virus is constantly changing and evolving into new strains. Each year the CDC attempts to predict which flu strain will be predominant. The CDC works with vaccine manufacturers to produce the specific vaccine that will combat 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.
Treating yourself at home
When you are exposed to the flu, the virus incubates for three to five days before symptoms begin. You probably have the flu if you come down with a high fever, sore throat, muscle aches, a runny or stuffy nose, and a cough (usually dry). The symptoms in children may also include vomiting, diarrhea and ear infections. Flu is usually self-treatable but has to run its course. You can treat symptoms by getting bed rest, drinking plenty of fluids, taking acetaminophen for aches and pains, and using a humidifier to keep nasal passages moist.
Expect the flu to last about five days, which is the time it takes your body to produce the antibodies that finally beat the infection. You will be protected from that strain of influenza for the rest of the season. Some people continue to feel ill and cough for more than two weeks. In some cases, the flu can make health conditions such as asthma or diabetes worse or lead to complications such as bacterial pneumonia. Adults older than 65 and people with chronic health conditions have the greatest risk for complications from the flu, the CDC says.
Antiviral medications are also recommended to treat the flu--amantadine, rimantadine, zanamivir and oseltamivir--but must be taken within the first two days of illness to be effective, the CDC says. They can reduce the length of time flu symptoms are present. These medications usually are used in hospitals, nursing homes and other institutions where people are at high risk for complications of the flu. Some side effects may result from taking these medications, such as nervousness, lightheadedness, or nausea. Individuals with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are cautioned about using zanamivir. Talk to your health care provider if you think you should take one of these medications. These medications are not meant as a substitute for vaccination.