We are all aware that the Ebola outbreak is dominating the news and keeping our public health and health care officials very busy. Fortunately, most of us have a very low risk of contracting this serious and scary disease. It's time to turn our attention to a disease that has a much broader impact in this country: influenza, commonly referred to as the flu.
Like Ebola, the flu is caused by a virus. Unlike Ebola, flu viruses easily spread through casual contact with an infected person. In fact, you can catch the flu if you are unlucky enough to be standing close to a person who is sick with the flu and sneezing or coughing in your direction. That is because flu viruses are much smaller than many other viruses and therefore able to stay suspended in the air for long periods of time. Ventilation systems can help distribute these particles throughout a room or space, so that sneeze or cough from across the room may not be so harmless after all.
The flu is an inconvenience at best - it can easily confine you to your bed for several days - or deadly at worse. Millions of Americans catch the flu each year and the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) reports that flu-related deaths in the US range between 3000 and 49,000 each year. The very young and very old are most likely to die from the flu, especially if they have pre-existing medical conditions such as asthma, obesity, and cardiovascular disease.
Annual influenza vaccinations form the first line of defense against this disease, and last year 134.5 million doses of vaccine were distributed in the US. Hopefully each one of these doses was used - if this was the case, then about 42% of the population was vaccinated. There's good news for people who are afraid of needles and/or allergic to eggs (which are often used to manufacture the vaccine): the vaccine is available in a nasal spray and egg-free vaccines are also available.
The nasal spray is approved for anyone between the ages of 2 and 49. It is a "live" but weakened virus that gives you immunity from the flu but won't make you sick with the flu. The nasal spray is manufactured in a process that uses eggs so it is not recommended for individuals with egg allergies. In addition, it is not recommended for pregnant women or individuals with compromised immune systems. Finally, individuals with asthma, other chronic conditions, a history of Guillain-Barre Syndrome, or who have had other vaccines in the previous month should consult their physician before receiving the nasal spray vaccine.
There are a few different types of flu shots, including one that is egg-free. All of them contain inactivated (or killed) virus particles. One of the shots is approved for babies as young as 6 months old. Like the nasal spray, individuals with egg allergies should avoid the egg-based vaccination and individuals with a history of Guillain-Barre Syndrome should consult their physicians before receiving a flu shot. In addition, you should not be ill on the day that you receive your flu shot.
One last word about flu vaccinations: they will NOT give you the flu. If you become sick shortly after being vaccinated it might be because you caught a strain of virus that wasn't in the vaccine (this year's vaccine protects you against 4 different, common flu strains). Also, remember that it takes about 2 weeks for your vaccination to fully protect you from the flu. You can unfortunately contract the flu in this time period. Finally, some people might confuse minor side effects from the vaccination (low grade fever, muscle aches, etc.) as becoming sick from the vaccine.
Good hygiene and behaviors that promote overall general good health are the next line of defense against the flu. Remember that the virus must enter your body in order for you to become sick. Wash your hands before eating, drinking, smoking, or touching your nose, mouth, or eyes. Cover your cough with your arm so you don't spread germs to those around you. Keep your immune system healthy by getting adequate sleep, eating healthy foods, and exercising regularly. Here's to staying healthy and safe this flu season!
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