Remain vigilant against the flu
Flu activity can last through the spring
By Tan Nguyen, M.D.
Despite the recent warm spell and other early signs of spring, it’s important to remain vigilant about influenza prevention.
Dr. Nguyen is a UC Davis primary care physician practicing at UC Davis Medical Group's Natomas office.
While the infectious disease typically gets lots of media attention in the fall thanks to the introduction of seasonal vaccines, flu activity itself usually peaks in January, February or March and can last throughout the spring.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC), the 2012-2013 flu season started early and hit hard – especially senior citizens, the most vulnerable age group for flu-related complications. In addition, this year’s predominant flu virus has been influenza A (H3N2) which can cause more serious illness compared to other subtypes (although in recent weeks, the proportion of influenza B viruses has been increasing).
To help keep from falling victim, pay attention to prevention behaviors such as handwashing and covering coughs and sneezes. And if you haven’t been already, consider getting vaccinated. CDC recommends that people get vaccinated against the flu as long as flu viruses are circulating -- and substantial activity can occur as late as May.
Why you should care
The flu, or influenza, is a viral illness that causes fevers, chills, sweats, headache and muscle aches. It can also lead to fatigue, a painful cough, sore throat, and sinus and chest congestion.
While influenza symptoms can last from several days to a couple of weeks, most people start gradually getting better after two or three days. However, in some high-risk groups of people (see sidebar), severe symptoms can develop.
Some high-risk groups for flu-related complications:
- Children younger than 5 years, but especially younger than 2
- Adults 65 and older
- Pregnant women
- American Indians and Alaskan Natives
People with existing medical conditions, such as:
- Diabetes and other endocrine disorders
- Heart disease such as congenital heart disease, congestive heart failure and coronary artery disease
- Chronic lung disease such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or cystic fibrosis
- Neurological and neurodevelopmental conditions
- Kidney disorders
Getting the flu can mean:
- Feeling miserable
- Lost productivity in terms of days off from work or school
- Putting loved ones at risk from getting your flu
Possible serious complications, including pneumonia, bronchitis or a worsening of existing heart disease or diabetes. Flu-related illnesses have been listed as the eighth-leading cause of death in America, based on 2007 data from CDC.
Recommendations for preventing the flu are easy to follow — and can make all the difference in staying healthy now and throughout the year:
- Get a flu vaccination. According to the CDC, this is the single best way to prevent the flu. Annual vaccination is especially important for people at high risk of having serious flu-related complications, CDC officials say, or people who live with or care for high-risk individuals.
- Wash or sanitize your hands often, and especially after coughing or sneezing.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick. If you're ill, stay home.
- Cover your cough. Use a tissue when coughing or sneezing. It can prevent the spread of germs. If you don't have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your upper arm or elbow.
- Try not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs are often spread this way, which is why hand washing is so important.
Maintain good health. Being healthy improves your immunity and helps fight the flu.
The flu vaccine usually comes in two forms:
- The shot. This is an inactivated vaccine, containing dead virus and is safe for people over 6 months of age, including pregnant women. Side effects can include soreness, redness and swelling of the injection site, low-grade fever and muscle aches.
- The nasal spray. This is a live virus that has altered to spark immunity to the flu, without causing illness. This is for healthy people from 2 to 49 years old, excluding pregnant women. Side effects can include runny nose, headache, sore throat and cough.
It's good to ask your doctor which variant is best for you.
Some people who should NOT get a flu shot, such as:
- Those with severe allergies to eggs.
- Anyone who had a severe reaction to a flu vaccination in the past.
- Those who developed Guillian-Barré syndrome after previously receiving a vaccine.
- Children younger than 6 months.
- Anyone with moderate or severe illness with a fever (talk with your doctor).