Reducing risk in cold and flu season
Updated: November 19, 2012 1:01PM
October is such an awe-inspiring month. We welcome the cool temperatures and the amazing autumn colors. But October also signals the beginning of flu season. According to the American Family Physician Journal (January 2004) 10-20 percent of Americans get the flu each year. About 20,000 people are admitted to the hospital with flu and the virus proves deadly for about 36,000 annually.
Influenza is a viral infection in the nose, throat and lungs. It is spread from person to person through airborne droplets generated by the infected person’s cough, sneeze or even just through conversation. Also, if the infected person handles an object, like a telephone or computer mouse, and then an uninfected person handles the same object and then puts their hands to their eyes, nose or mouth, the virus can transfer to them. The infected adult is contagious from about one day before the symptoms show up, until 5 to 7 days after becoming sick. So, even if a person doesn’t yet know they are sick, they may already be spreading the virus to others. Symptoms may appear in 1-4 days, and include dry cough, fever over 100 degree, nasal congestion, aching muscles (especially arms, legs and back) and an overall feeling of tiredness. Children may also experience a runny nose, sore throat, headache, or vomiting and diarrhea. Most people will recover in a few days to less than two weeks.
How can you protect yourself? First, each autumn get a seasonal flu vaccine — shot or nasal spray. This will reduce your chance of getting the seasonal flu yourself or spreading it to others. There are some conditions, such as egg allergies, that may make a person ineligible to receive the flu vaccine. Be sure to speak with your physician before getting the vaccine.
Why yearly? The vaccine protects against the three most common virus types anticipated for that season, and this changes each year. The three strains chosen are those that scientists believe are most likely to show up in the United States that year. If the choice is right, the vaccine is 70 percent to 90 percent effective in preventing the flu in healthy adults. So, the vaccine does not guarantee that you will not get the flu. But if you get the flu after being vaccinated, your flu symptoms should be milder than if you didn’t get the vaccine. Besides, the more people who get vaccinated against the flu, the less flu can spread through that community.
And just to be clear, you cannot get the flu from the flu shot. The flu shot contains killed (inactivated) viruses. But, after receiving the vaccine, the body takes about two weeks to provide protection against the infection. So, during that two week period you are still at risk for getting the flu. This is another reason why it’s better to get vaccinated early in the fall. Following the vaccine you may experience soreness, redness or swelling where the shot was given, or low grade fever, and aches. These problems, if they occur, begin soon after getting the shot, and usually last less than two days. But this, too, is not the flu.
Another helpful infection reducing strategy is a common one. Wash hands often with soap and warm water, for at least 20 seconds. If necessary, use an alcohol-based hand rub. Also linens, eating utensils, and dishes belonging to those who are sick should be thoroughly washed before sharing with others. And of course, eating healthy, exercising and getting enough sleep can help to prevent colds and the flu because they help boost your immune system. Very simple ideas, but very effective!
For more information, visit http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/disease/spread.htm or call the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Immunization Information Hotline at these numbers at 1-800-232-2522 (English) or 1-800-232-0233 (Spanish).
Dr. David Bedney is a health educator for The Robert Crown Center for Health Education.