Staying Healthy during Flu Season
Influenza (flu) is a very contagious respiratory illness. Symptoms include fever, body aches, sore throat, cough, rhinitis, and headache. It generally lasts five to seven days. The flu is contagious before symptoms are felt by the infected person. This makes the disease difficult to prevent without vaccination and is also why “cough etiquette” is so important. Cough etiquette is the practice of coughing or sneezing into your elbow rather than your hand, which will then touch surfaces and other people and transmit the virus.
While the exact timing of flu season varies every year, flu season in New England generally begins in the fall and lasts through the winter. Some individuals are more at risk for catching the flu than others. However, there are ways that you can prevent yourself or your loved ones from catching the flu this season.
We spoke with Connie Schmidt, Infection Prevention & Control Manager at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital-Plymouth, to get her advice on staying healthy this flu season.
Q: Who is most at risk for contracting the flu virus?
It is estimated by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) that in the United States, each year on average 5% to 20% of the population gets the flu. Most people who get the flu do not need medical care and will recover on their own in less than two weeks. However, some people are more at risk than others and will require medical care or hospitalization. These people include children younger than 5, adults 65 years and older and pregnant women. People with medical conditions that put them at risk for serious complications such as asthma, heart disease or diabetes should be particularly concerned about getting influenza.
Q: What precautions can I take to avoid contracting the flu?
The best way to prevent yourself and others from getting the flu is to get vaccinated every year. There are various types of flu vaccines available in the form of a shot and also as a nasal spray. Flu vaccines cause antibodies to develop in the body about two weeks after vaccination. These antibodies provide protection against infection with the viruses that are in the vaccine. It is recommended that everyone over 6 months receive a flu vaccine. However, certain restrictions apply to those who may be allergic to certain components of flu vaccine. The good news is now there are several vaccines that are available that have the most common allergic components removed. There is a flu vaccine for almost everyone. Consult your physician to see if you are eligible to receive a vaccine.
Practice Hand Hygiene with soap and water or alcohol hand rubs and avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth with unclean hands as these are entries for the virus into your body.
Q: How effective is the flu vaccine at preventing the flu?
The flu vaccine is not 100% effective. Some years the vaccine contains flu strains that are a great match to the circulating strains and some years we get caught with new, unexpected strains during a flu season that are not in the vaccine. Also, antibody production varies. People 65 and over have less antibody production to any vaccine than younger people. Some medications can also alter a body’s response to vaccine. There is now a “high dose” vaccine for persons age 65 and older.
The design of the flu vaccine is to minimize illness and prevent death. Public health programs work best when communities have at least 80% of their population immunized. This is known as “herd immunity” and prevents widespread outbreaks.
Need a Flu Vaccine? If you need a flu vaccine and are looking for a primary care physician, consider making an appointment with a Beth Israel Deaconess HealthCare physician in Plymouth, Duxbury, Pembroke or Sandwich by calling 877-40-NEWMD.