Flu season fundamentals: How to protect yourself

Dr. Nandini Sengupta | 9/16/2009, 10:33 a.m.

Each year, health care providers, school systems and thousands of American households prepare for the onset of the traditional winter cold and flu season. However, the emergence this year of the H1N1 influenza strain, commonly known as the swine flu, has added a new dynamic to our annual battle with the flu.

Given the emergence of swine flu, it is important to note several facts about the H1N1 virus:

• The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains that, while the World Health Organization categorized the H1N1 flu as a “pandemic” and “public health emergency,” that classification refers to the large number of people across the world that have contracted the illness, rather than the severity of the illness.

• Experience from this past spring and subsequent research into this strain of the flu suggests that the swine flu is no more dangerous than the seasonal flu. In fact, according to the CDC, approximately 43,000 people in the U.S. were diagnosed with the swine flu last spring, resulting in just over 5,000 hospitalizations and less than 400 deaths. By contrast, the seasonal flu typically results in more than 200,000 hospitalizations and approximately 36,000 deaths each year.

While the CDC and other experts expect the H1N1 flu to pose no more of a health threat than the seasonal flu this year, both the swine flu and seasonal flu can cause serious illness and flu-related complications, particularly for those with existing health conditions, such as asthma, diabetes or immunodeficiency.

Fortunately, precautions for avoiding the seasonal flu apply to preventing the swine flu as well. Most of us are familiar with the family of symptoms associated with a case of the flu, but it is worth recalling the signs to watch for in members of your household.

The list of the CDC’s commonly associated flu symptoms include: fever (usually high), headache, extreme fatigue, a dry cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle aches, and stomach symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, which are more common in children than adults.

To protect yourself and your family, it is important to understand that the flu generally spreads from person to person, and that a healthy individual may be able to infect others as early as one day prior to symptoms setting in.

The medical community agrees that getting vaccinated against both the seasonal flu and the H1N1 flu represents the best course for prevention.

Seasonal flu

The CDC recommends that the following key groups be vaccinated for the seasonal flu:

• Children from the ages of 6 months old to 19;

• Pregnant women;

• People 50 years of age and older;

• People of any age with certain chronic medical conditions;

• People who live in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities; and

• People who live with or care for those at high risk for complications from flu.

Today, we have two options for seasonal flu vaccination, which include a traditional flu shot and the relatively new nasal-spray flu vaccine. Both are highly effective, but because the shot uses an inactive vaccine while the nasal spray vaccine is made with weakened but live viruses, individuals should discuss with their physicians which vaccine is most appropriate for them.