If you get the flu this winter, you can expect at least two to three weeks of misery, missed days of work or school and, possibly, some very serious, even life-threatening complications. The best way to avoid all this is to get a flu shot.
As in recent years, the Centers for Disease Control is recommending a shot for every American age 6 months and older.
If you’re age 60 and over, regardless of how healthy you feel, it’s particularly important for you to get a shot promptly. A majority of Americans who die from the flu every year are seniors who develop complications such as pneumonia.
Babies (6 months of age and older) and young children are also highly vulnerable since their immune systems are not yet fully developed. Parents and other adults caring for children should get protected. And women who are pregnant should get a shot to protect both themselves and their unborn child.
In the United States, peak flu season is typically during January and February, but cases can start appearing as early as October. So it’s important to get protected as early as possible, and immunity will last you through the flu season. If you forget or get sidetracked, it still makes sense to get a shot all the way through the end of May, when the flu season is likely to start phasing out.
There are two main types of flu virus — A and B — and many strains of each. Each year, experts develop a vaccine designed to protect against the strains they feel are most likely to be prevalent. This year’s vaccine is targeted against two strains of A and one strain of B virus. And for the first time, a shot protecting against four strains (two A and two B) will be introduced and available in more limited quantities.
Made with killed virus, the flu shot cannot cause the flu, although it can bring on soreness at the injection site and perhaps some mild symptoms. The nasal spray (FluMist) is a weakened, rather than a killed, virus, but still incapable of causing the flu. Aftereffects may be a bit more severe, and it is not recommended for adults older than 45, children younger than 2 or pregnant women. It protects against four strains — two A and two B.
The flu vaccine, year after year, is your best protection from the flu, and it takes about two weeks until you get full benefit. So it’s important to get your shot early. The protection is not 100 percent, but having had a shot should protect you from the most serious symptoms and complications.
There are things you can and should do to protect yourself and others.
Practice good respiratory hygiene. When an infected person coughs or sneezes, microscopic organisms are carried on droplets that can be sprayed onto any nearby person or surface.
If a tissue or handkerchief is not handy, cough into your shoulder rather than your hand. From the hand, germs can spread indiscriminately to doorknobs, computer keyboards and TV remotes.
Wash your hands frequently, particularly after shaking someone’s hand or touching a potentially contaminated surface. Regular soap and water will do the trick. Carry an alcohol-based gel for those times when soap and water are not handy.
And even when you think your hands are clean, try to avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. These are frequent gateways for germs to enter the body.
Stay at home or isolate yourself when you think you’re coming down with a respiratory illness and encourage others to do the same. If you simply can’t miss a day or two, work from home or hole yourself up in your office and warn others to stay away.
Avoid crowds as much as possible during cold and flu season, and avoid sharing plates, glasses, utensils or even computer keyboards. Sanitize your glasses and dishes by cleaning them in a dishwasher or with detergent and warm water.
Unfortunately, all of the above preventive measures, with the exception of vaccination, are usually practiced too late. You become contagious within 24 to 72 hours after being infected, nearly always before you begin to feel sick. And you remain contagious for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone (without the use of fever-reducing medication).
There are prescription flu drugs (Tamiflu, Relenza) that can be effective if taken within 48 hours of the appearance of symptoms. Other components of treatment include rest, plenty of fluids and over-the-counter or prescription medicines, such as decongestants, to relieve symptoms.
The ideal approach, of course, is to avoid the flu altogether. And the best way to do that is to get a flu shot.
Rupp is a certified information and referral specialist on aging for NODA Area Agency on Aging. Contact her at 237-2236.