Every year in the United States, more than 200,000 people are hospitalized from flu complications, and about 36,000 people die from flu related illnesses. There is a lot of information in the press lately about "bird flu" and "pandemic flu" that are new problems. However, what is more immediately important to you and your family is the regular seasonal flu that comes to the US and our community every winter. Read on to learn more about flu, and how to protect yourself this flu season.
What is the "flu"?
The "flu" is what we all call an infection caused by influenza virus. This is usually an illness of the nose, throat and lungs. It comes every year to our communities usually from December to March. It can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death especially in people who are elderly, very young, or have other illnesses. The best way to prevent the flu is by getting a flu shot each fall.
The "bird flu" or "Avian Influenza" that we hear about in Asia is a specific strain of the flu virus that is very serious, and often leads to hospitalization and death when people get it. However, it is still relatively rare in humans- it is a bird virus, and it is not spread by the usual coughing and sneezing that regular flu spreads by.
"Pandemic Flu" is a flu virus infection that spreads very quickly in humans all over the world. It is caused by a new influenza virus that has not been seen in humans before. This new virus spreads from person to person very quickly and is very serious. Unlike the usual yearly flu viruses that get people sick, these new strains of viruses are very contagious and cause more serious infections than the usual flu. These strains of influenza do not occur very often, but when they do, they are very bad. Past pandemics were the "Spanish Flu" in 1918, the "Asian Flu" in 1957, and the "Hong Kong Flu" in 1968. Millions of people died in pandemic flu years- this is why public health planners are working to make sure that all the tools of modern medicine are ready if another pandemic virus is found. People are worried that the "Bird Flu" might become a pandemic virus if it changes - but this has not been the case for several years.
Symptoms of flu include:
fever (usually high)
runny or stuffy nose
stomach symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea also can occur but are more common in children than adults.
The flu often feels different than a regular "common cold" because of the high fever and lots of body aches, especially the first two or three days.
Certain people are at higher risk than others of getting severe flu infections or complications. These include older people, young children, and those with certain health conditions such as lung diseases including asthma, heart disease, diabetes and other chronic illnesses. Complications of flu can include lung infection, dehydration, and worsening of other medical conditions such as congestive heart failure, asthma, or diabetes.
How Flu Spreads
Flu viruses spread by coughing and sneezing. They usually spread from person to person, or sometimes when a person touches a surface that has recently been coughed or sneezed on by someone with the flu. It is very contagious, and people can get others sick even one day before symptoms develop and up to five days after becoming sick. That means that you can pass on the flu to someone else before you know you are sick, as well as while you are sick.
What You Should Do If You Get the Flu
Drink plenty of liquids
Avoid using alcohol and tobacco
Take medicines (Tylenol or ibuprofen) to relieve the fever, headaches, and muscle aches
Stay home from work or school until the fever is gone.
The flu is caused by a virus, so antibiotics (like penicillin) don't work to cure it. While there are "antiviral" medicines that can work against some kinds of flu, the best way to prevent the flu is to get a flu shot each fall (before flu season). Try to stay away from other sick people (and stay home if you think you have the flu), and wash your hands.
Preventing the Flu: Get Vaccinated
The single best way to prevent the flu is to get a flu shot each fall. October or November is the best time to get vaccinated, but getting vaccinated in December or even later can still be helpful. It takes about two weeks after receiving the flu shot for antibodies to develop in the body and provide protection against the flu virus. In the meantime, you are still at risk for getting the flu. That's why it's better to get vaccinated early in the fall, before the flu season really gets under way.
Also, the flu shot has to be given every year- this is because the kinds of flu viruses in our community change every year, and each one needs a different vaccine. Unlike other vaccines (like measles, mumps, hepatitis) where you may be protected for life after your childhood shots, you must get a new flu shot every fall if you want to be protected.
Who Should Get Vaccinated?
Almost everyone who wants to reduce their chances of getting the flu can get vaccinated. However, certain people should get vaccinated each year.
People who should get vaccinated each year are:
1) People at high risk for complications from the flu:
All adults 50 years and older;
People who live in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities;
Adults and children six months and older with chronic heart or lung conditions, including asthma, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, or a weakened immune system (including immune system problems caused by medicines or by infection with HIV/AIDS);
Children six months to 18 years of age who are on long-term aspirin therapy.
Women who will be pregnant during the influenza season;
All children ages six months to their fifth birthday;
People with any condition that makes it hard to breathe or swallow, such as brain injury or disease, spinal cord injuries, seizure disorders, or other nerve or muscle disorders.
2) Other people recommended to receive vaccine:
People who can give flu to others at high risk for complications.
Any person in close contact with someone in a high-risk group should get vaccinated. This includes all health-care workers, household members and out-of-home caregivers of children less than five years of age and especially those less than six months old, household family members of patients with asthma, diabetes, kidney disease and a weakened immune system, and household members of people 50 years and older.
What are other steps that can be taken to prevent the flu?
There are other good health habits that can help prevent the flu. These are:
Avoid close contact with people who are sick. When you are sick, keep your distance from others to protect them from getting sick too.
If possible, stay home from work, school, and errands when you are sick. You will help prevent others from catching your illness.
Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. Or cough and sneeze into your elbow if you will not be able to immediately wash your hands. It may prevent those around you from getting sick.
Washing your hands often will help protect you from germs.
Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs are often spread when a person touches something that has germs and then touches his or her eyes, nose, or mouth.
Consider carrying some alcohol based hand sanitizer with you if you may not be able to get to a sink to wash your hands.
At Tuba City Regional Health Care Corporation (TCRHCC), there is an ongoing flu shot clinic that will be running Monday - Friday from 8:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. through November except for the holidays. Patients should register for the flu shot in the Emergency Room and they will be directed to the special clinic only for flu shots. People of all ages may receive their flu shot at this clinic.
On Nov. 29, TCRHCC will be participating in the Navajo Area Influenza Mass Vaccination Exercise from 7 a.m. -12 p.m. in the wrestling room of the Tuba City High School Pavilion. Persons who have not received a flu vaccine by that time are invited to participate in the exercise and get their flu shot. The Community Response Team which involves local businesses, individuals and schools will be participating in the event. Children may also be participating in the exercise, with parental consent. For questions or more information about the Navajo Area Influenza Mass Vaccination Exercise, please contact Debi Farrell at (928) 283-2628.