Doctor’s Tip: Influenza can cause lost work and school days and even death — get your flu shot
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends a flu shot by the end of October for everyone over the age of 6 months. Children under the age of 6 months should not receive flu shots, so it’s particularly important that care givers for those children are immunized.
Children 6 months and older need two flu shots, four weeks apart — the first one should be given by the end of September. During the 2019-20 flu season 166 U.S. children died from influenza — deaths that probably would have been prevented had these kids been immunized.
Adults need just one shot, and people 65 years and older need an extra-strength vaccine. The 1918 flu epidemic resulted in 675,000 American deaths. About 56,000 flu-related deaths occurred in the U.S. during the 2012-2013 flu season — a season with a particularly high rate of influenza deaths. Of lesser concern but still important is that influenza accounts for many days of lost work and school absences.
Influenza is caused by viruses — which do not respond to antibiotics. The most severe forms of flu are influenza A and B, with C being a milder disease. In temperate climates such as ours, flu viruses are usually active during the colder months — late fall, winter and early spring. It takes about two weeks for the shots to “kick in.” Flu shots can be obtained in most doctors’ offices, in pharmacies and at public health offices. Flu shots are tweaked every year, due to “genetic drift” in the influenza viruses. Allergy to eggs is no longer a contraindication to getting the shot, although if you have an egg allergy you should mention it to whomever is vaccinating you. Go to the CDC website to learn about the several flu vaccine options available this year, or discuss with whomever is giving you the vaccine.
Side effects, other than mild soreness around the injection site for a day or two, are rare. People sometimes say that the flu shot gave them the flu, but that has never been proven to occur. The average adult gets five, non-flu viral infections a year such as colds, so out of the millions of flu shots that are given every year some people will coincidentally come down with one of these other viral infections and blame it on the flu shot they just had.
Influenza is highly contagious, and is transmitted by the respiratory route, meaning nasal drainage and droplets expelled by coughing. The incubation period is one to four days. Typical symptoms include fever, chills, malaise (feeling really crummy), generalized aching, chest discomfort, headache, nasal stuffiness, dry cough and sore throat. Elderly patients often present with lassitude and confusion but not the other symptoms. Frequent flu complications include sinus and ear infections, bronchitis and pneumonia (viral and bacterial), with pneumonia usually being the cause of flu-related deaths. Young children taking aspirin can develop Reye syndrome when infected by flu and other viruses, which affects the liver and brain and can lead to death.
Did you know that a timely flu shot can reduce death from heart attacks and strokes? Bacterial, and viral infections such as influenza, can cause inflammation that can triggers rupture of arterial plaque — the cause of heart attacks and strokes. According to Bale and Doneen in their book “Beat the Heart Attack Gene,” a large study showed that up to 91,000 Americans die annually from heart attacks and strokes triggered by the flu — deaths that are not included in the statistics noted above for flu-related deaths.
Rapid flu tests done in doctors’ offices are helpful for diagnosis, although false positives and negatives can occur. Remember that flu shots only prevent influenza A and B — not colds or stomach or intestinal flu. They are not 100 percent effective in preventing influenza, but the disease tends to be shorter and milder in immunized people. Be proactive about your health, and get a flu shot if you haven’t already. Flu shots are particularly important during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Greg Feinsinger, M.D., is a retired family physician with a special interest in heart disease and diabetes prevention and reversal, ideally though lifestyle changes. He’s available for free, one-hour consultations — call 379-5718.
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