The time of the year has come to talk about the flu. The flu is short for Influenza, which is a highly contagious, airborne infectious disease of the respiratory track which affects millions of people worldwide in a seasonal manner. In our neck of the woods, the flu season can vary in timing and severity but it typically starts late December/early January, peaks in February, and dies off in March. It is not the most common respiratory infection, but is the one that most commonly causes severe complications. It is estimated the flu on average results in greater than 23,000 deaths and over 200,000 hospitalizations annually in the United States. Most of these complications happen in children younger than 2 years old, elderly greater than 65 years old, and folks with weakened immune systems from various chronic diseases like asthma, COPD, diabetes, congestive heart failure and other organ failures. On the economic front, the flu is estimated to cost the U.S. 80 billion dollars a year due to the hospitalizations, doctor visits, and missed time at work.
The most effective way to combat the flu is the prevent it. Preventing infection is the best way of avoiding a potentially devastating epidemic, the last of which was seen in 1968 when we had 34,000 flu deaths in the US. The flu is transmitted mainly through contact with respiratory droplets of an infected person when he/she sneezes or coughs. Therefore, to minimize transmission it is advised that sick patients stay home, that patients cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing, and that frequent handwashing is practiced throughout the flu season.
In addition, one should get their flu shot! There are a lot of reservations out there regarding the flu shot, but the facts are this:
- Although not always effective, the flu shot has been shown to decrease flu infections on average over 50%.
- You can get mild symptoms of the flu with the shot, including low fever, muscle aches, and fatigue, but these symptoms pale in comparison to a real case of the flu. Most people who’ve had the flu can attest to the fact that merely getting out of bed is difficult because you are so sick.
- Being vaccinated contributes to herd immunity, meaning that if enough of a community is vaccinated (typically greater than 80%) the rest of the unvaccinated community acquires indirect protection from the disease.
- It is especially important for the at-risk population groups I mentioned earlier—young children, elderly, and people with chronic diseases—to get vaccinated simply because a flu infection can be deadly in those patients.
Now what can you do if you do acquire the flu? For the most part, you want to treat it like most colds. You can take over the counter cold medications as needed, drink lots of fluids, and get plenty of rest. There also is a prescribed medication called Tamiflu to shorten flu symptoms. This medicine works best the first 48 hours after the onset of symptoms, so try to get to a health care professional during that time period if you can. At-risk patients should definitely see a health care professional at any time of the illness. Symptoms of shortness of breath or dehydration are urgent reasons to get seen as well.
I am crossing my fingers for a mild flu season. Let’s all do our part to make sure that’s the case, which means going out and getting your flu shot! We offer them in our clinic to all ages.