Whether we like it or not, the flu season is upon us. This is the time of year when the days get shorter, the temperatures grow colder, and we typically spend less time outdoors. This is also the time of the year that illness spreads, if you will forgive the metaphor, like wildfire. More time indoors offers wonderful opportunities to spend more time with family and close friends. It also offers more time for exposure to pathogens, such as the viruses that cause influenza infection.
One common misconception is that influenza causes gastrointestinal distress, with symptoms including diarrhea and vomiting. While these symptoms are serious and warrant a visit to your physician, they are likely not caused by influenza infection. Influenza is a contagious respiratory infection with symptoms including fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills, and fatigue. Medical experts believe flu viruses are spread through tiny droplets expelled from the body when we cough, sneeze, or talk. These droplets pass through the mouths and noses of people close in our proximity. The influenza virus does not live long outside the body, but exposure from contaminated surfaces is a possible route of transmission.
Symptoms may begin to appear one to four days after exposure to the virus and infected persons are most contagious in the first three to four days after illness begins. Influenza should be taken seriously, as additional complications associated with the flu include bacterial pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections, and worsening medical conditions such as congestive heart failure, asthma, or diabetes. Anyone can get the flu, even healthy people, and serious flu-related issues can happen at any age. Certain populations, such as people aged 65 years and over, people with asthma, diabetes, or heart disease, pregnant women, and children younger than 5 years of age are at a higher risk of developing serious flu-related complications.
There are a few things we can do to not only protect ourselves, but also the community at large. The most important step we can all take in curbing incidence of influenza infection is to get a flu vaccination. Unfortunately, there is quite a bit of misinformation floating around related to vaccinations. The flu vaccine is not harmful, unless an individual happens to be allergic to one of its components. The advancement of medical science and the regularity of vaccinations have been important steps in curbing wide-spread illness and eradicating otherwise life-threatening disease.
It is true that the flu vaccine does not protect against all types of influenza viruses and some people still contract the flu virus, despite getting vaccinated. This is likely not caused by the vaccine itself, as the virus component of the vaccine is inert, or essentially dead. Exposure to this “dead” virus initiates the production of antibodies within our bodies that help fight against infection from that virus type. Each year, medical researchers analyze flu incidence to determine the most common virus type reported. This is generally the type against which a vaccination will protect. It is still worth your time to get vaccinated. When deciding whether you want to get vaccinated, keep in mind that vaccination not only protects you, but also those who are at increased risk of infection and further potential health complications, including death.
Another important step is maintaining high standards of personal hygiene. When you feel the urge to cough or sneeze, remember to try to aim for the pit of your elbow or your shoulder to prevent the spread of droplets. Coughing and sneezing into your hands may do little to curb the spread of droplets and doing so may contaminate other surfaces to which you come into contact throughout the day. Wash your hands regularly with warm water and soap. Be sure to work up a generous lather, washing in between your fingers, under your fingernails, and around your wrists and upper forearms. A general rule of thumb is to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds. A helpful tip to track time is to hum the “Happy Birthday” song or sing it in your head. Rinse and dry your hands thoroughly after you wash them. Following these tips will help keep you, your family, and our community healthy during this flu season.
If you have questions or concerns regarding flu vaccinations, please do not hesitate to consult your doctor or another medical professional. As always, you may follow me on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AaronCSwankMPH) for helpful health-related tips and information. Thanks for reading!