September 29, 2009 in Features

Yearly flu vaccinations will pay off

Dr. Alisa Hideg
 

It’s that time of year again: shorter days, kids in school, cooler nights, thinking about the holidays.

Well, actually, it is time for flu vaccines. If you have not done so already, get yourself to your doctor, clinic or pharmacy and get your seasonal influenza vaccine.

And if you are in a high-risk group, get the H1N1 “swine flu” vaccine once it is available next month.

The high-risk groups of concern for H1N1 are children and young adults from 6 months to 24 years; pregnant women; people who live with or care for children under 6 months; and people with chronic diseases like asthma, diabetes or heart disease.

Of course, health care providers should get the seasonal influenza vaccine yearly, and I will be getting both it and the H1N1 vaccine this year.

“A flu shot can give you the flu.” “I hate shots.” “There is medicine to cure the flu now.” “Flu vaccines don’t really work.” “I had the flu last year, so I am immune.”

I could go on listing the excuses I hear from patients for not getting influenza vaccine.

Symptoms of seasonal and H1N1 influenza are the same and include fever, sore throat, headache, cough and body aches. The fever and aches often last for five to seven days and the cough can last for two weeks.

During the first 12 days of September, 4,569 people in the United States were hospitalized with influenza and 364 people died. In the past 12 months, 114 children have died from influenza-related illnesses and 46 of those were due to H1N1.

So you may want to reconsider those excuses.

You cannot get influenza from the injected vaccine, since it does not contain any whole virus.

There is a nasal-spray version of influenza vaccine available if you really hate shots. A very few people will have mild symptoms from the nasal-spray vaccine, which is not recommended for pregnant women, kids under 2 years or adults over 49.

Medications for treating influenza are not cures; they only lessen the severity of symptoms or shorten the length of illness, and must be started within the first two days of symptoms.

While it is true that some years the seasonal flu vaccine does not target all possible strains for that year’s flu season, people who get vaccinated yearly are more likely to stay healthy.

If you do catch influenza even though you got a flu vaccine, you will not be sick for as long or as seriously ill as you might without the vaccine. Your chances of landing in the hospital or getting pneumonia are lower.

Influenza strains circulate around the world, changing every year, so immunity to last year’s version will not protect you from this year’s flu.

What else lowers your chances of catching influenza? Wash your hands frequently with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, especially after touching things like doorknobs and countertops.

Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Stay at least six feet away from sick people if you can.

I hope you manage to avoid influenza this year, but if you become ill, do your best to avoid spreading it around.

Cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze or cough. Keep washing your hands frequently and stay home until your fever has been gone for 24 hours.

If you are in a high-risk group, see your doctor within the first two days of symptoms to see if you need medication. These medications can have side effects, but are necessary for people at high risk of flu complications – especially pregnant women, adults over 65 and children under 5 years.

The only other thing you can do when you have influenza is to make yourself more comfortable.

Tylenol and ibuprofen can decrease the fever, body aches and sore throat – but the effect only lasts six hours, so you have to keep it up.

Drink lots of fluids. Cough suppressants and throat lozenges help. Gargling with salt water may soothe your sore throat.

Rinsing your sinuses with a kit from the drugstore eases sinus pressure and nasal congestion. I keep mine handy throughout the winter.

Get your flu shot, do your best to stay healthy and good luck!

Dr. Alisa Hideg is a family medicine physician at Group Health’s Veradale Medical Center in Spokane. Her column appears every other Tuesday in the Today section. Send your questions and comments to drhideg@ghc.org.

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