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The Flu and You

Adventist Health Health and Wellness, Podcast

Local hospitals are reporting a recent rise in flu cases. It seems to happen every year. This week a couple of local experts share some information about influenza viruses and how we can better understand and manage our risks during flu season.

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In this Episode

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are basic preventative action steps that can help prevent the spread of Influenza.

  1. Receive the flu vaccine annually as directed by your healthcare provider.
  2. Hand Hygiene is the most basic element of infection prevention for preventing the transmission of Influenza. Use an alcohol-based hand rub when soap and water is not available.
  3. Disinfect high-touch environmental surfaces to prevent the easy spread of the flu virus.
  4. If you believe you have the flu, staying home from work or school and avoiding public places can prevent the virus from spreading to others. If you come to a hospital with flu like symptoms you may be asked to wear a mask to prevent droplet transmission (releasing the flu virus into the air when you cough or sneeze).
  5. There are antiviral medications that can be prescribed when appropriate to lessen the severity of symptoms.

Our two experts boil flu safety down to two basic principals.

  1. Wash your hands
  2. Get a flu vaccine

For some listeners that second suggestion might end the conversation, but we encourage you to explore the topic of flu vaccines with us.

The Character of The Flu

Dr. David Hall

Dr. David Hall

Influenza is an RNA virus, meaning it uses RNA instead of DNA to reproduce. The thousands of Influenza viruses are divided into three basic categories, A, B and C. Influenza A tends to be the one that causes most of our illness

Most flu vaccines include a vaccination against three Influenza strains, two A types and one B type. Because the virus is constantly changing, scientists must work to predict which strains will be dominant each flu season and create a vaccine that's effective. Some years (like the 2015-2016 flu season) the match is very strong. Other years (like the 2014-2015 flu season) a strain that's not as affected by the vaccine is more prolific. Scientists hope to identify a part of the Influenza virus that is shared by all strains, which would allow them to develop a universal vaccine. For us that would mean a one-time flu vaccine that offered a lifetime of protection.

The Numbers Game

So who decides which strains are included in flu vaccines each year? While epidemiologists (scientists who study disease) know a lot about the flu, they may not be the best experts for identifying which strains are most likely to spread each flu season. For that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) uses analytics experts, who study probabilities and data trends to predict the odds for various influenza strains.

High-risk Groups

Sometimes a health condition or factor may seem like a reason to think twice about a flu vaccine, but Dr. Hall believes many of those people are the folks who are especially at risk for getting the flu and/or experiencing significant complications. This group includes:

  •  Pregnant women
  • Children under 5
  • People with compromised immune systems
  • The elderly

Challenges with the flu vaccine

  • It's necessary to get it every year (no universal vaccine exists yet).
  • Some years it's not a strong match to the dominant Influenza strains.
  • Our immune systems don't always a strong supply of antibodies from the vaccine.
  • "Flu Like Symptoms" Many symptoms associated with Influenza are shared with other viruses, like colds.
  • On average, the flu vaccine is 50-60% effective.

Can a flu shot give me the flu?

This is one of the most common questions (or beliefs) surrounding influenza vaccines. The injectable flu vaccine contains 3-4 strains of the influenza virus. However the virus has been inactivated, which means it is grown and then killed before being put into the vaccine. Your immune system will recognize that the dead virus is bad and build antibodies specially designed to kill this Influenza strain if it appears in your body again.

"I'll just tough it out" "I've never had the flu before"

Certainly if you are healthy and have a strong immune system the health risks associated with the flu are low. You'll likely spend about a week in bed and up to 14 days feeling very sick. Again, flu and cold symptoms are very similar, but this intensity and length of symptoms is one way to tell if what you have is a cold or flu virus. In addition, your immune system may be strong, but what about those around you? Chances are someone you care about is in one of those high-risk groups. While your strong immune system is fighting off the flu you could still pass the virus on to them.

Never having the flu in the past does not mean you are less likely to contract the virus now or in the future. Dr. Hall describes it as the immune system equivalent of saying "I've never been in a car accident so I don't need to wear my seat belt."

The flu season

Influenza viruses exist year-round, but generally seem to peak in the US during the winter months. It can begin as early as October and last into April. Vaccines are usually developed in the late summer and available in September or October. The peak tends to be in December, January and February. It takes about two weeks for your body to build up antigens from the vaccine, and then you'll be protected from those 3-4 strains for the whole season.

What else can I do?

Hand washing is an important part of flu prevention

Hand washing is an important part of flu prevention.

If you're not comfortable getting a flu vaccine, or want to further decrease your protection there are additional steps you can take. As an added benefit, these steps will help protect from the spread of colds and other illnesses.

Wash your hands frequently. This is the third time we've mentioned it. It's a huge deal, and makes a big difference.

Be aware. Pay attention to when flu risks are high. Make sure to get enough sleep, water and nutrition to keep your immune system strong. Avoid exposure to people who are (or may be) sick.

If you get sick, stay home. Protect those around you from exposure.

How do I know if it's the flu?

  • The flu comes on very suddenly within a few hours.
  • Headaches
  • Body aches
  • Temperature over 100 degrees
  • Sore throat
  • Cough

Sounds a lot like a cold huh? A key difference is the speed and severity. If you have time to say, "I might be getting sick, chances are you're dealing with a cold and not the flu.