By Dr. Allan Zacher, M.D.
Flu season is here. You and your family and friends have not gotten it yet, but if you look at Google Flu Trends (http://www.google.org/flutrends/) you will see that we are on the early part of a significant upswing in cases that happens every year.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a branch of the U.S. government, about 36,000 people die per year and 200,000 are hospitalized with flu. This does not include the perhaps 1 million people who will be incapacitated for days to weeks but aren’t sick enough to go to the hospital.
About 36,000 people actually die of the flu each year, almost the number of people in the United States who die in automobile accidents. And like automobile accidents, the flu is largely preventable.
First, let’s identify what “Flu” really is (and is not). There are many diseases caused (usually) by viruses that people call the flu, but many are not actually THE flu. The medical definition is a disease which is caused by the influenza virus. This has a set of typical symptoms which generally start with a sore throat, body aches, fever and a “bad” feeling which is called malaises by your doctor. The symptoms which start in the throat may progress down the airway to the lungs resulting in wheezing, cough, “heaviness” in the chest. It is the effects on the lungs which can lead to very serious medical complications, hospitalization and even death.
Unfortunately, complicating the picture are perhaps dozens of viruses which cause “flu like symptoms” of sore throat, runny nose, headache. Many of these are “cold viruses” (unfortunately another complicated disease, because “colds” may actually be caused by any one of about a half dozen viruses). There is also the “stomach flu” which is not flu at all, but rather a gastro-intestinal upse, caused by yet other viruses or bacteria or even food poisoning.
What can you do to prevent flu? There are actually a number of things which are helpful. Try to stay away from people who are sick and appear to be sick. Wash your hands frequently and especially if you have your hands near your face (the influenza virus really likes the soft wet tissue at the back of the nose and mouth — this is where it usually gets its start). If you are sick, either stay home or wear a mask when out. As funny as this looks, it will help prevent the spread of the virus. Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze.
The flu vaccine (flu shot) is very helpful. There is what I call an old wives tale of people getting the flu because of the vaccine. This is not possible and not what happened. First, the vaccine takes about two weeks to build up your immunity. So if you had been exposed to flu and it was starting to grow but you did not have symptoms yet, you could come down with the disease immediately after bring vaccinated. Also, the flu vaccine covers only three strains of flu virus, two “A” strains and one “B” strain. The specific strains are selected early in the year as those thought to be the most prevalent. If you get the vaccination and are unlucky enough to get a strain not covered by this year’s vaccination you will still get flu.
The vaccine (shot or nasal spray) will not protect you from other diseases — and here’s why the old wives tale is so prevalent — like colds and other flu like illnesses. There will be no protection from these other illnesses. This is probably what you or your friend got when they said they got “the worst case of flu after the flu shot”.
But importantly it will protect you from the most prevalent and dangerous true flu illnesses. The CDC estimates that many of the thousands of deaths and hospitalizations would be eliminated if everyone for whom it is recommended got the flu vaccination (or nasal spray).
To find out more information, please see the CDC Web site which is an excellent source of information (http://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/vaccine/index.htm). Get the flu vaccine, wash your hands frequently, avoid touching your face if your hands may have been contaminated, and stay home if you get sick.
(Dr. Allan Zacher, MD, is the medical director and owner of Interventional Pain Services of Western North Carolina, located in Clyde.)