At This Time of Year, Everyone Needs a Shot in the Arm
Written By: Dr. Michael Klein, Easton Family MedicinePublished in The Patriot Ledger and The Enterprise
As warm days give way to crisp autumn evenings and our children are all firmly back to school, many of us in health care have begun our own ritual: flu shot season.Flu shot season is a huge undertaking, requiring coordination between doctors’ offices and pharmacies, state and federal agencies, and teams of “flu-ologists” who dedicate their careers to tracking influenza around the world. We do all this because the flu vaccine can save about one life per 4,000 doses. For a simple intervention that takes under a minute to perform, a shot in the arm is likely the single highest yield life-saving intervention any health care provider can do.Here are a few questions we often hear at this time of year:
What is the difference between a cold and the flu?
Colds involve infection with any of several different types of virus. Symptoms usually start with a drippy nose or scratchy throat and progress slowly over a few days into the more pronounced stuffy nose, painful sinus congestion, sore throat and cough that we all associate with colds.
Which symptoms you get and how badly you get them vary based on what type of virus you get, how your own immune system chooses to fight the virus, how rested or even how stressed you are, and, frankly, a bit of luck. Symptoms gradually get worse, peaking around the third to fifth day and are usually gone in seven to 10 days.
The flu is a completely different beast. While colds develop slowly, and you can “feel one coming on,” the flu comes on suddenly. It is akin to getting hit by a bus. One minute you feel fine and the next every muscle in your body hurts. Even your hair hurts. Fevers are usually present and often quite high. Coughing and runny nose often accompany symptoms, but the worst part of the flu is almost always the body ache, high fevers and the weakness. Getting out of bed is difficult.
How serious is the flu?
It is common and even expected to miss at least a week of work for the flu, compared to usually a few days of the worst symptoms with a cold. The flu can easily land you in the hospital and kills on average 36,000 Americans per year. This is similar to traffic fatality rates. Last year, 80,000 Americans died of the flu, the highest toll in at least four decades, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Mortality is only part of the story. The flu causes many more times those numbers above in hospitalizations, severe illness requiring doctors’ visits (and copays!), lost school time and lost work time.
Why do so many people avoid getting flu shots?
I honestly think the biggest reason is that many of us have just not given up our childhood fear of needles. I totally get that, but luckily we have worked very hard to make modern vaccines as painless as possible. The flu itself is what really hurts.
Many people tell me they don’t get the flu shot because they think it will give them the flu. This is simply not the case. What I suspect is happening is flu shot season corresponds with the beginning of cold season and back-to-school. I think those who get sick around the time they get the flu shot are blaming the vaccine for the cold they were about to get from sick children and co-workers. Timing is everything.
What if the shot is not a perfect match for this year’s influenza?
There are very few medical interventions that are as safe and well-studied as the flu shot. Even when the shot does not match perfectly with the flu strains in circulation – as was the case last season – it dramatically limits how bad or contagious an infection is. It also reduces the severity of the illness and speeds the return to school and work.
How can I avoid getting the flu?
While the flu shot is the single most important way to avoid getting the flu, here are a couple of other common-sense thoughts on avoiding the flu: Washing your hands is extremely important. If the flu has no opportunity to travel from your hands to your nose, you are much less likely to get sick. Likewise, avoid sick people whenever possible.
What is Tamiflu and how can it help?
Tamiflu is an antiviral drug designed to reduce flu symptoms, the length of illness, and even how contagious you are. It works best when taken immediately at the onset of illness. If a family member gets the flu, everyone else in the house can take a 10-day preventive course of the drug to help avoid getting sick.
Tamiflu is currently the only product that will help fight the flu, so don’t believe marketing hype surrounding over-the-counter remedies. Nutrients such as zinc and vitamin C are great parts of a healthy diet but will do nothing in supplement form when you’ve got the flu. The same goes for any “immune boosters” on store shelves. These may lighten your wallet but do nothing to prevent the flu or even colds. The best booster for the immune system is a good night’s sleep.
What should one do when feeling sick?
If you do become suddenly and intensely ill, it is always a good idea to call your doctor’s office. The medical staff can assist you in determining the most appropriate treatment plan. Sometimes the single most important intervention a doctor can provide is a note to help you get time off from work or school to fully rest and recuperate – and avoid spreading the virus to co-workers or classmates.
As I tell my patients, pushing yourself to work with the flu will not make you a hero. It will only make you a host for transmitting the virus to others.