Fall is upon us! The kids are settled in their classrooms, and the temperatures have cooled. Personally, this is my favorite stretch of the year, right as the leaves start to turn. In October, the last thing I’m thinking about is the flu virus, even as the signs start to go up around town reminding us to get vaccinated. Still, I know that understanding more about the flu virus and vaccine are the most important steps in preventing illness, so let’s have a little flu review.
Facts about Flu
Influenza is a viral infection that infects the entire respiratory system, including the nose, throat, bronchial tubes, and lungs. It’s important to note that while stomach viruses that cause vomiting and diarrhea are often referred to as “flu,” the influenza virus does not cause this type of illness. Flu viruses travel through the air in droplets when an infected individual coughs, sneezes, or speaks. Germs may be picked up by touching objects such as doorknobs or telephones, or the virus may be inhaled directly from the air.
The flu is caused by three different strains of viruses: influenza A, B, and C. Type A is responsible for the deadly epidemics that historically strike every few decades. Type B is typically responsible for smaller localized outbreaks. Either type A or B may cause the flu that circulates almost every winter, and these strains of flu are constantly changing, with new strains appearing regularly. Type C is a relatively stable virus, and has never been linked to a large epidemic. For this reason, the annual flu vaccines protect against Influenza A and B.
Symptoms of flu include high fever (over 101º F), chills, headache, dry cough, and muscle aches. Fatigue and loss of appetite are common. Children may also suffer from gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea and vomiting. Flu symptoms tend to come on suddenly, and may last up to two weeks.
Anyone can catch the flu, but children, older adults, and those with chronic illnesses or weakened immune systems are particularly vulnerable. If you’re at high risk, there are a number of preventative measures you can take to protect yourself. You might consider an annual flu vaccine as your first line of defense. While the vaccine doesn’t offer 100% protection, it can greatly reduce the risk of infection and help prevent serious complications. The CDC now recommends flu vaccines for the general population, ages six months and up.
Hospital Discount Pharmacy of Edmond administers approximately 2000 flu vaccines every year. Pharmacist Stephanie Harris is certified to administer vaccines, and recommends the flu vaccine to all adults and children 6 months and older, unless the patient has an egg allergy or a history of Guillian-Barre syndrome. Many people fear the vaccine itself will cause the flu, but this is a misconception. “The components of the vaccine are inactivated and chopped into small pieces that the body recognizes as flu antigen—enough to make antibodies to the three antigens contained in that year’s vaccine. It is not a live vaccine so there is nothing to give you the disease present in the shot,” explains Harris. Occasionally, patients may experience mild fatigue or a low-grade fever after being vaccinated, but symptoms generally pass within 24 to 48 hours.
Prevention and Treatment
Aside from yearly vaccination, it’s important to remember other important preventive measures for flu and other viruses this time of year. Regular and thorough hand washing is the best way to prevent common infections, and will reduce the likelihood of contracting the flu virus. Getting adequate sleep and eating a balanced diet that emphasizes antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables will also help keep the immune system kicking. Supplementing your diet with extra vitamin C and probiotics will help ward off infection all year. Finally, drinking at least eight glasses of water per day will help to flush toxins from the body.
In spite of your best efforts, if you find yourself stuck with the flu, get lots of rest and drink plenty of fluids. Remember, the flu is a virus, and antibiotics will be ineffective. Antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu and Relenza can help to shorten the duration of illness, but must be started within 48 hours of developing symptoms. Side effects of these medications can include nausea and vomiting, particularly within the first 24
hours. Discuss the pros and cons of antiviral therapy with a clinician.
Even though it seems like it’s early in the season to think about the flu virus, now is the time to consider getting vaccinated. Whether or not you get a flu shot, remember to rest, wash your hands frequently and drink plenty of fluids. Add vitamin C and probiotics to your balanced diet, and have a healthy fall and winter!
Shannon Fields is a freelance writer and a Certified Pharmacy Technician at Innovative Pharmacy Solutions.