To your health: Shots and other good habits for battling influenza in 2018

By Alfred Casale - To Your Health | January 9th, 2018 6:00 am

Influenza is hitting us hard this year.

Although flu season can start as early as October, this year, as usual, it’s shifted into high gear in late December and January. In Pennsylvania, through the end of 2017, there were over 6,200 cases documented, with one-third of those in the last week of the year and 60 percent within the last two weeks of December.

Seasonal influenza is a contagious respiratory illness caused by viruses that infect the nose, throat and lungs. People who have the flu usually have symptoms including fever, cough, sore throat, a runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, extreme fatigue, and sometimes vomiting and diarrhea.

Although most recover after a week or so of illness, some more serious cases, especially among the very young; the very old; or those with chronic illnesses like diabetes, heart disease or weakened immune systems; have resulted in hospitalization and/or death.

It’s possible to be infected with the flu virus and not even know it. You can pass on the flu to someone else at least one day before you feel symptoms. And you can keep infecting others with the flu up to five to seven days after you become sick. No matter how healthy you are, you can catch the flu — that’s why getting your annual flu shot is so important.

Even though the flu vaccine has been only 30 to 40 percent effective in the last few years in protecting against the flu (and this year may actually be worse), the flu vaccine is still the most effective way to protect yourself and others from getting the flu.

The Centers for Disease Control recommends that everyone age 6 months and older get a flu shot this, and every, year. The shot is designed to defend against the top three or four flu viruses that researchers expect will cause the most illness during the flu season. Since it takes about two weeks for the vaccine to cause an adequate immune response to protect you, if you haven’t gotten yours already, don’t delay. Go soon.

While the flu shot is the best way to protect yourself this season, there are some other precautions you can take to avoid getting sick.

Try avoiding close contact with people who are sick with flu-like symptoms and wash your hands regularly to reduce the spread of germs. If you do become sick with the flu, you should stay home from work or school to prevent spreading it to others.

Other habits that can prevent you from getting sick include covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze; avoiding touching your eyes, mouth and nose; and cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces at home, work or school, especially when someone is sick. If soap and water aren’t available to wash your hands, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

There are a few drugs that are FDA approved for reducing the severity and duration of flu, but their place in our battle against influenza is debated.

These anti-viral agents work only when given within 48 hours of the onset of flu symptoms. They must be continued for a full five-day course, and even then, are expected to reduce the duration of symptoms only by a day or two but to lower the severity of symptoms and the risk of complications or hospitalization.

If you or a family member has a chronic medical condition that puts you at high risk for flu and flu-related complications, I recommend you talk to your doctor ahead of time to decide if these anti-virals are appropriate should you develop symptoms.

Wash your hands, and let’s get through this together.

By Alfred Casale

To Your Health

Dr. Alfred Casale, a cardiothoracic surgeon, is Associate Chief Medical Officer for Geisinger Health and Chair of the Geisinger Cardiac Institute. Readers may write to him via [email protected]