DEAR DR. GOTT: I hear repeated announcements on television that the flu vaccine this year will be in short supply. I’m 78 years old and wonder how serious it will be if my doctor doesn’t have enough vaccine for me.
DEAR READER: I recommend you phone your doctor’s office and get on a waiting list for the fall. You will then have the peace of mind of being sure to get the vaccine you need.
Influenza is a contagious respiratory illness that is caused by an influenza virus. Statistics reveal 5 percent to 20 percent of the population of the United States will be affected with seasonal flu, and symptoms will vary from mild to severe. Winter is traditionally flu season. Cases have been reported as early as October; however, January and February are commonly the hardest-hit months. The most appropriate time to obtain the vaccine from your physician is middle to late October. In that way, you will have the protection later in the season, when you need it most. However, the Centers for Disease Control recommend immunization in September or as soon as possible.
There are certain people and age groups that should make an attempt to get vaccinated every fall. Those targeted are people of any age with specific chronic medical conditions, people age 50 and older, children ages 6 months up to 19, health care workers, pregnant women and those residing in nursing homes or long-term health care facilities.
Immunization does not guarantee you will remain flu-free; however, it can protect you from the three strains researchers indicate will cause the most illness this year. I stress this point because flu viruses change annually. This is the reason why a vaccine manufactured in the past will not be beneficial for the current season. Remember that production takes place months before a vaccine is administered. How well the current vaccine works depends on how close a match it is to the strains researchers have predicted will hit.
Influenza viruses are commonly spread from person to person through vapor droplets from coughs and sneezes. While you may think you aren’t exposed, imagine riding a bus or going to a grocery store where someone coughs or sneezes without covering his or her mouth or nose, touching a door handle, shopping cart, gasoline pump, car door, using a telephone or coming into contact with a thousand other possible contaminants. You then touch your nose or mouth and voila! You have been exposed.
Healthy adults can infect other people a day before they experience any symptoms. This continues for up to five days following illness. Children have the uncanny ability to pass the virus on for more than seven days. Symptoms generally begin up to four days after a virus enters the body. People without symptoms can unknowingly spread the virus to others.
Simple precautions are the rule of the day. Avoid people you know are contagious. Carry tissues, and cover your mouth or nose when coughing or sneezing, or use the crook of the elbow if tissues are not readily available. (Tissues can be disposed of properly; handkerchiefs cannot.) Keep an alcohol-based hand sanitizer in the glove box of your car or purse. (Be sure that it contains at least 60 percent alcohol to ensure the viruses are killed.) Take a small packet of disinfecting wipes when grocery shopping to use on shopping-cart bars. Wash your hands more frequently than you would at other times of the year. Be practical, but avoid obsessive actions. Eat healthful meals, exercise regularly and get enough sleep. All these steps might keep you from getting the flu.