By Dr Michael S. Ashton, M.D., Director of Infectious Diseases and Hospital Epidemiology, Bermuda Hospitals Board
Influenza (also called the flu) is an upper-respiratory infection. It is caused by the influenza virus. Flu strains differ from one year to the next. You can get the flu when you breathe in droplets from someone infected with the virus. It can also be spread by touching a contaminated surface and then putting your hand to your mouth, eyes or nose.
Each year (usually beginning in October), the flu spreads around the world. Anyone can get it, but some are at a higher risk of complications. People at higher risk of complications include being younger than 5 years old; being 65 years old and older; having certain conditions, including chronic lung condition (e.g., asthma), cardiovascular disease, kidney or liver disease and neurological, blood, or metabolic condition (e.g., diabetes); having a suppressed immune system (e.g., HIV); being pregnant; being a child or teen who receives long-term aspirin therapy; living in nursing homes or other long-term care facilities; being American Indian/Alaska Native; and being severely obese.
What Is the Influenza Vaccine?
The flu vaccine is a safe and effective way of protecting yourself from flu. It is made from an inactivated, killed virus and contains several influenza viral strains. The type of strains that the vaccine contains changes from year to year based on which viruses are likely to circulate during that flu season.
Who Should Get Vaccinated and When?
The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that anyone aged six months and older should get a flu shot. It takes about two weeks for the vaccination to protect you against the flu. Although you can get the flu anytime during the year, flu season typically lasts from October to May. The best time to get vaccinated is as soon as the vaccine becomes available. Doing so will protect you before the main flu season starts
What Are the Risks Associated with the Influenza Vaccine?
Almost all people who receive the influenza vaccine have no problems. Some people can experience some minor discomfort, and there is a very small risk of serious problems. But getting the flu is even riskier, so talk through your concerns with your doctor.
Adverse effects associated with the flu shot are limited to one or two days and include soreness, redness and swelling around the injection site; low-grade fever; and muscle aches.
Who Should Not Be Vaccinated?
Certain people should talk to their doctor before receiving the influenza vaccine. These include people who have any severe (life-threatening) allergies (including severe allergy to eggs); have had a severe reaction to the flu vaccine in the past; have had Guillain-Barré syndrome; currently are sick; have received any other vaccines in the last four weeks (for nasal spray only).
Give Your Immune System a Hand
You can help prevent the spread of cold and flu everyday with a few simple steps. One of the best ways is by proper and frequent hand washing. Proper and frequent hand washing is the single most important thing you can do to keep from getting sick and to stop the spread of disease-causing germs. This one activity washes away germs that you may have picked up from other people or from contaminated surfaces. And rubbing your nose or eyes with hands that have been contaminated is one of the main ways you will catch a cold or the flu.
Why do you have to wash your hands frequently? Because you can’t see the germs with the naked eye. Especially important times to hand wash are when your hands are dirty; before, during, and after you prepare food; before you eat; after you use the bathroom; after you change a diaper; after handling animals or animal waste; after taking out the trash; after blowing your nose, sneezing, or coughing; before and after treating a wound; and before and after caring for someone who is sick.
To properly wash your hands with soap or water, follow these simple steps: First, wet your hands with warm or cold water and apply soap. Next, rub your hands together vigorously to create a lather. Scrub all surfaces of your hands, including the back of your hands, your wrists, and between your fingers. Also clean under your fingernails to help control germs. Keep fingernails trimmed and short. Continue for at least 20 seconds or about the length of a little tune (for example, sing “Happy Birthday” twice). It is the soap combined with the scrubbing action that helps dislodge and remove germs. Rinse your hands well and dry them with a clean paper towel, clean towel or air dryer. If possible, use the paper towel to turn off the faucet and open the door.
If you use alcohol-based hand rubs, squirt some into the palm of your hand and rub your hands all over until they are dry. They are a good option, unless your hands are visibly dirty.
Other Ways to Protect Yourself against Cold and Flu
Help your immune system by eating healthily, getting enough sleep, exercising and managing stress. Avoid close contact with people who have respiratory infections. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw away the tissue after you use it. Coughing or sneezing into your elbow or upper sleeve is also a good option. Do not share drinks, food or personal items. Do not bite your nails or put your hands near your eyes, mouth, or nose. Keep surfaces clean by wiping them with a household disinfectant.
Treating the Common Cold
Antibiotics will not cure a cold; you cannot cure a cold. Certain things, however, can help you reduce your discomfort. These include over-the-counter (OTC) medications such as acetaminophen to relieve aches and fever, or decongestants and antihistamines to combat congestion. Speak to a doctor before giving these medications to children as they can have potentially dangerous side effects.
Drink plenty of water every day. This will help keep you hydrated. Avoid alcohol as it promotes dehydration. Avoid smoke. It irritates an already sore throat and intensifies a cough. Get plenty of rest. Use a humidifier, an electric device that puts moisture into the air.
Treating the Flu
If you have the flu, the first thing you need is rest. And until your symptoms are gone, it is a good idea to not go back to your full activity level. You should stay home from work or school for at least 24 hours after your fever has gone. You also need plenty of liquids. Antiviral medicines could help relieve symptoms and shorten the time you are sick. They must be taken within 48 hours of the first symptoms.
When to Call the Doctor
You usually do not need to call a doctor if you have signs of the flu or a cold. However, you should contact your doctor if you are worried about your illness, are at high risk for complications or if you experience any of the following difficulties: your symptoms get worse; after you feel better, you develop signs of a more serious problem (these include: difficulty breathing; confusion; severe or persistent coughing; high fever; shaking chills; chest or abdominal pain; severe or persistent vomiting; and worsening cough).