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It’s Flu Season. Part 1: What Is the Flu and How We Can Prevent It

This article is purely to provide information about flu season.
We respect each mom and her decision for her family.

Flu season is still going on. It runs from late fall to spring. That is from around October to April each year. “The flu” refers to an infection caused by any of a series of influenza viruses. Many other different viruses give respiratory infections or colds, which are not “the flu.”

Why all the fuss? Well, even though most patients with the flu will recover completely, there is a large part that will have severe illness, require hospitalization (over 100K), or even die (over 30K) every year. Those are not small numbers and these are only for the US. This really is a world phenomenon. 

Who gets affected during flu season?

If you have never had the flu, it is a matter of time before you or someone you know will get it. Each year, up to 40% of the population will get infected. People with long term (chronic) illnesses, children under 5 years old, and people over 65 years old are the most susceptible. Chronic illnesses include heart, lung and kidney problems, being immuno-compromised like HIV patients, and even being obese. Yes, being obese has been identified as an isolated risk factor. Patients with poor healthcare access are susceptible as well.

We  forget at times about our family members in retirement and nursing homes. These locations are a focus of outbreaks, along with elementary schools, long-term care facilities, group homes, daycares and other facilities.

Knowledge is power and here are some facts I will share given this is still the flu season.

Symptoms

You will know if you have the flu once you start to feel ill after everyone else was sick at school, the office or at the gym. But, if you are not certain, you will look for:

Cough is dry or with secretions, sneezing, chest discomfort

High grade fever, flushing

Fatigue

Muscle aches

Runny nose (secretions are clear with viruses; yellow or green with bacteria), congestion

Chills, sweating

Headache, poor appetite

The definite diagnosis is made with a lab test. During flu season, there is also a high incidence of respiratory syncytial virus. So, the fact that you were ill does not mean that you had the flu. You can still get another viral infection.

Prevention

The best way to prevent an infection by the flu, specifically, is to have the vaccine. There are many other viruses that can infect and threaten us. We are fortunate there has been a specific pattern identified for influenza and that we have a specific vaccine available each year.

Every February the World Health Organization (WHO) meets and makes recommendations for vaccines for the Northern Hemisphere. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration meets to review the advice from the WHO. They will discuss options and make the decision about what the virus composition for the U.S. vaccines will be for the next flu season so they can be manufactured on time.

It is still the flu season. If you have not received your vaccine and have not been infected, you can still get it. Vaccination is offered usually before the onset of the season until the end if there is vaccine available. It can take up to two weeks for it to be effective in your body. The effects usually last 6-8 months. Most people require just one injection. Children between 6 months to 8 years old will probably receive two, the second one scheduled four weeks after the first one.

Like any other medication, you can have complications from vaccines.

We do recommend you discuss this with your health care provider before you decide. People who are allergic to eggs might be allergic to the vaccine. The recommendations for these patients vary from year to year. But, for the 2016-17 flu season, patients with allergy to eggs get the vaccine only from someone who can handle allergic reactions in a setting ready for this. 

Being pregnant does not prevent you from getting the vaccine. No reports have been found of complications to babies born to mothers who had influenza vaccine during any trimester. It has been reported, though, that babies are protected and have less incidence of influenza when their mothers are vaccinated. So, discuss with your doctor if you are pregnant and concerned about the flu.

In the second and last part of the series, we will discuss other ways of prevention and the treatment for the flu.

 Written by Dr. Myrdalis Dia Ramirez
Reference: Tamma PD et. Al. Safety of Influenza Vaccination During Pregnancy. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Volume 201, Issue 6, December 2009, Pages 547–552 

Don’t miss the second part: It’s Flu Season. Part 2: More Prevention and Treatment

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