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Flu season is here

Fall brings the foliage … and the flu

Karen Miller | 10/6/2016, 1:54 p.m.
The 2016-2017 flu season is upon us. There’s no escaping that pesky virus. Like clockwork, it makes its appearance every ...
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, proper handwashing is like a "do-it-yourself" vaccine. Photo: Inhabitots Photo Gallery

The 2016-2017 flu season is upon us. There’s no escaping that pesky virus. Like clockwork, it makes its appearance every fall. Generally, flu season starts in October and peaks between December and March, but can last as long as May, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Actually, there are four types of influenza viruses, but only two are the culprits behind the seasonal flu. Determining which viruses will circulate in this country is somewhat tricky, and can be hit or miss. Scientists observe which flu viruses are particularly active across the globe before they make a decision on the type of vaccine needed.

Further complicating the situation is that viruses can mutate fairly quickly thereby diluting the effectiveness of the vaccine.

There is a misperception that the flu is just a very bad cold. Not so. Both illnesses are caused by viruses, but a cold has relatively mild symptoms, while complications from the flu can result in hospitalizations and even death. The flu generally comes on quickly, and is characterized by fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose, achiness, headache and fatigue.

The flu vaccine is recommended for everyone over the age of six months. Some groups of people are particularly vulnerable to the flu: young children; older adults; pregnant women; and those with certain medical conditions, such as asthma and heart disease.

There are a few changes this year in guidelines. The nasal spray vaccine used primarily for children is not recommended for this flu season, largely because of its low effectiveness in comparison to injectable shots. People with egg allergies get a reprieve. Since most flu vaccines contain small amounts of egg protein, those with allergies often had negative reactions.

The CDC has found, however, that those who suffered only hives following a shot can get any licensed flu vaccine. People, however, who have experienced more serious reactions, such as respiratory distress, should receive the shots in a medical setting. In addition, the 30-minute wait period after receiving the vaccines for those with egg allergies is no longer necessary. The American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology agrees.

There’s more than one type of flu shot this season, including two for older people. One is higher-dosed and another contains an ingredient to boost the immune system. Some children, particularly those who have received only one dose in their lifetime, will require two shots this season.

The optimum time to get vaccinated is by the end of October. However, vaccination can continue throughout the flu season, even into January or later. It generally takes two weeks for the immune system to build resistance against the flu, so the earlier the better. Contrary to a commonly-repeated misperception, the flu shot does not give a person the flu. Because of the time lapse between injection and protection, that sneaky virus could have already targeted you as a victim.

In addition to the shot, other precautions are recommended. Wash your hands with soap and water, or alcohol-based hand rub if soap and water are not available; keep your hands away from your eyes, nose and mouth. Germs spread that way. Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Stay home if you get sick. Take advantage of anti-viral drugs, which can be effective, especially if taken within 48 hours of symptoms.

There is no guarantee that the flu shot will protect you given the uncertainty of the exact flu strain that will attack and its severity. The CDC estimates that the flu vaccine this year will be roughly 60 percent effective.

Instead of viewing it as a 40 percent failure, view it more positively. It reduces the risk of infection by nearly 60 percent. Those aren’t bad odds.