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Are You Prepared For Flu Season?

The Pennsylvania Department of Health announced on December 19 that the flu activity in the state of Pennsylvania has increased to “regional status.” However, it’s not too late to get a vaccine if you or your child is not already vaccinated.

Dr. Michael Colli, Chief Medical Officer of Keystone Health and Board-Certified Pediatrician and Medical Director of Keystone Pediatrics, shares some important information about the flu, who should get the flu vaccine, and what to do if you suspect you have the flu.

What is the flu, and what are the symptoms?

The flu is a viral infection caused by the influenza virus. It causes fever, cough, sore throat, headaches, body aches, vomiting, nasal congestion, runny nose, and fatigue. Some patients, unfortunately, can get quite ill from the flu and can have serious respiratory issues as a result. Sometimes, these respiratory issues progress to the point where patients require hospitalization for closer monitoring and support. At its worst, patients can die from the influenza virus. Every year in the United States tens of thousands of people, including several hundred children, die from complications related to the flu.

Every year there are three to four different circulating strains of the influenza virus. These strains change from year to year. This means that we typically have very little natural immunity to the flu and each winter we are susceptible to contracting influenza again. The more the strains change, the more susceptible we are. This is why getting a flu shot is so important. Each year the CDC and the vaccine manufacturers make an educated guess as to which strains of the flu will be circulating that winter, and tailor the vaccines to include these strains. Unfortunately, the four strains present in the vaccine are not always a perfect match to the strains circulating in the community each winter. However, even if all four strains are not a perfect match, two or three of the strains usually are matched well. This means that the flu shot always offers at least partial protection to the circulating strains of flu.

Who should get a flu shot?

Everyone 6 months and older is recommended to get a flu shot.

Why is getting the shot important for children?

Young children are at highest risk of severe complications from the flu. Therefore, they should be the highest priority to receive a flu vaccine. Due to their age, children have little to no natural immunity to the flu. Their immune systems are naturally not as robust as the immune system of an adult. Therefore, when they contract the flu, they can get quite ill. This holds true of any infectious disease, not just the flu. However, because we have a vaccine that can protect our children from the devastating complications of the flu, there should be no reason for us not to take advantage of it.

Why is it important for adults?

In addition to infants and young children, the elderly are the next highest-risk segment of the population for complications from the flu. Like children, the elderly also have relatively weakened immune systems, which can result in severe life-threatening complications from the flu. Although young adults rarely manifest severe complications from the flu, it usually causes enough symptoms to result in time off of work. In addition, many adults have close contact with young children or the elderly. By getting a flu shot, young adults reduce the chance of contracting the flu and therefore protecting their loved ones and close contacts.

What other ways can you reduce your chance of getting the flu?

By far and away the best means of protecting yourself from getting the flu is getting an annual flu shot. Frequent handwashing, including the use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers, and avoidance of people who are showing flulike symptoms can help reduce, but not eliminate, the likelihood of transmission.

If you are experiencing symptoms, when should you or your child see a doctor?

Severe symptoms from the flu, such as difficulty breathing, persistent vomiting, significant lethargy or change in mental status warrant a doctor visit. Because severe complications from the flu can happen, monitoring vital signs, certain labs, and blood oxygen levels, can help determine which patients may require hospitalization.

What are some ways to help someone with the flu feel better?

Measures like running a humidifier, saline nose sprays, over-the-counter pain and fever reducers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen, rest, and fluids can help make people with the flu feel somewhat better. Occasionally, an antiviral medication called Tamiflu can be prescribed that can slightly shorten the duration of symptoms. Most people recover from the flu eventually, without requiring prescription medications. Because the flu treatments are so limited, however, prevention of flu through vaccination is paramount.

 

This article contains general information only and should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis, treatment or care by a qualified health care provider.