Every year around the first of November we find ourselves plunged into another flu season. Healthcare organizations ramp up communications; signs appear outside of neighborhood pharmacies; health centers promote public flu vaccine sessions; and almost half of the US population typically decides to get vaccinated.
However, unlike last year when flu season hit early and hard in the Boston area, the flu season is hitting the Northeast region later this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That does not mean to hold off on getting a flu shot if you haven’t yet.
According to Nicolas Nguyen, MD, medical director and family medicine physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Family Medicine-Brookline, located in Brookline, MA, it isn’t too late to get the vaccine. Getting the vaccine anytime before the end of the flu season will decrease your risk. It may decrease your chance of getting the flu by as much as 70 to 90 percent.
“It is important to realize how serious the flu can be, in some cases leading to death,” explains Dr. Nguyen. “The flu vaccine is therefore very important both on an individual and community level. The goal is to prevent people from getting sick and from spreading the illness to others. Side effects are rare and most people will not get sick from the vaccine itself.”
The high risk populations who should get the flu vaccine each year include:
• Children under 2 years old
• Chronically ill
• Pregnant women
Keep in mind, recommends Dr. Nguyen, the flu vaccination is recommended for everyone over 6 months of age - not just high-risk. Healthcare workers and children are highly advised to receive the vaccine as well.
Influenza, or the flu, is an acute viral infection characterized by the abrupt onset of high fever, malaise, body aches, and often headache. These symptoms are often accompanied by cough, sore throat and nasal discharge. The flu causes missed days of work and the inability to care for family and oneself.
“The symptoms caused by the flu have a varied duration depending on the individual affected. Some people may recover in as little as 5 days, while others may have a prolonged course of 7-10 days, or even longer,“ says Dr. Nguyen.
“Some people do not recover from the flu at all. If you do catch the flu, it’s imperative that you contact your health care professional within 48 hours as you may be a candidate for anti-flu medications. But again, it’s always better to prevent than to wait until you are sick. So the flu vaccine is always the preferred way to go.”
In general, antivirals are recommended for those who need it the most, such as the high risk population, but anyone can get them.
To combat the flu, Dr. Nguyen recommends plenty of rest, keep hydrated, and treat symptoms with medications, such as for high fever. “The flu is highly contagious and is spread by respiratory droplets from sneezing, coughing, and talking, so you should not go to work or public places if you are sick,” he says.
Dr. Nguyen recommends the following steps you can take to help protect yourself from getting the flu:
• Wash your hands often with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub.
• Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. Germs spread this way.
• Try to avoid close contact with sick people.
• Practice good health habits. Get plenty of sleep and exercise, manage your stress, drink plenty of fluids, and eat healthy food.
• Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.
• If you are sick with flu-like illness, stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone without the use of fever-reducing medicine.
Talk to you doctor about getting the flu vaccine. It is the best defense against the flu.
Dr. Nguyen is located at Beth Israel Deaconess Family Medicine-Brookline, 1101 Beacon Street, Suite 4 East, Brookline, MA. Call 617-396-8005 or visit www.bidmc.org/pcpnow.