Doctor’s Tip: It’s flu shot time
Influenza can cause lost work and school days and even death
This week’s column is a break from the series about the gut microbiome, because it’s flu shot time.
Vaccinations, including COVID-19 and flu immunizations, are one of the shining success stories of modern medicine. They stimulate the immune system to fight off infectious disease, without the vaccinated person experiencing the disease. They have saved millions of lives and prevented millions of cases of disability (such as deafness from measles, fetal defects from Rubella and paralysis from polio) worldwide.
Thousands of Americans die every year from influenza and its complications—and most of these deaths could be prevented if everyone got their annual flu shot. Of lesser concern but still important is that influenza accounts for many days of lost work and school absences.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a flu shot by the end of October for everyone over the age of 6 months, with rare exceptions (egg allergy is no longer one of them). 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. 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 65 and older need extra strength vaccine.
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. They are tweaked every year, due to “genetic drift” in influenza viruses. Go to the CDC website to learn about the several flu vaccine options available this year, or discuss with your primary care provider or 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 nonflu 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. Common flu complications include sinus and ear infections, bronchitis and pneumonia (viral and bacterial), with pneumonia usually being the cause of flu-related deaths.
Did you know that flu shots can reduce death from heart attacks and strokes? Bacterial and viral infections, such as influenza, can cause inflammation that can trigger 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 prevent only influenza A and B — not colds or stomach or intestinal flu. They are not 100% effective in preventing influenza, but the disease tends to be shorter and milder in immunized people, and complications including death are much less apt to occur.
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, and flu and COVID-19 immunizations can be given concurrently.
Dr. Feinsinger is a retired family physician with special interest in disease prevention and reversal through nutrition. Free services through Center For Prevention and The People’s Clinic include: one-hour consultations, shop-with-a-doc at Carbondale City Market and cooking classes. Call 970-379-5718 for appointment or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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“The single greatest predictor of a healthy gut microbiome is the diversity of plants in one’s diet,” Dr. Will Bulsiewicz, MSCI, in “Fiber Fueled.”