Fighting the Flu

As anyone who's had the flu will agree, it's serious business: fever, muscle aches, headache, lack of energy, dry cough, sore throat, and the inevitable runny nose. And then there can be the stomach symptoms: nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

"Serious illness and sometimes even death occur more frequently in those 65 years and older, children younger than 2 years, and any person-regardless of age-who have medical conditions that place them at an increased risk for complications from the flu," according to Danette Burnett Null, MD, a family medicine physician with the Memorial/LSUHSC Family Medicine Center and Residency Program.   "And vaccination is the single most effective way to prevent infection from the flu and its potentially severe complications."

A highly contagious disease, the flu is commonly spread during the late fall and winter months-prime breeding time for the virus, which is more stable and stays in the air longer when air is cold and dry. To highlight the importance of continuing influenza vaccination, as well as foster greater use of flu vaccine through those cold, dry months of November, December...and beyond, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has announced the week of December 8-14, 2008, as National Influenza Vaccination Week.

Take time to get a flu vaccine.

The first and most important step in protecting against this serious disease is a yearly flu vaccine, according to Dr. Null.

"About two weeks after vaccination, antibodies develop that protect against influenza virus infection," she explained. "While there are many different flu viruses, the flu vaccine protects against the three main flu strains that research indicates will cause the most illness during the flu season. "The vaccine can protect you from getting sick from these three viruses or it can make your illness milder if you get a different flu virus."

There are two types of flu vaccines currently available:

  • The "flu shot" - an inactivated vaccine (containing killed virus) that is given with a needle. The flu shot is approved for use in people 6 months of age and older, including healthy people and people with chronic medical conditions.
  • The nasal-spray flu vaccine - a vaccine made with live, weakened flu viruses that do not cause the flu (sometimes called LAIV for "Live Attenuated Influenza Vaccine"). LAIV is approved for use in healthy people 2-49 years of age who are not pregnant.

Getting a vaccine is very important for people at high risk for serious flu complications, including young children, pregnant women, anyone with chronic health conditions like asthma, diabetes or heart or lung or kidney disease, those 50 and older, and nursing home or long-term care residents. Anyone who lives with or cares for those at high risk should also get a flu vaccine to protect his/her high-risk contact.

According to Dr. Null, some people should not be vaccinated without first consulting a physician, including:

  • Those with a severe allergy to chicken eggs.
  • Those who have had a severe reaction to an influenza vaccination in the past.
  • People who developed Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) within 6 weeks of getting an influenza vaccine previously.
  • Children less than 6 months of age (influenza vaccine is not approved for use in this age group).
  • People who have a moderate or severe illness with a fever should wait to get vaccinated until their symptoms lessen.

Take everyday preventive actions.

"If you do catch a cold or the flu this season, cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, and throw the tissue away after you use it," said Dr. Null. "If you don't have a tissue, cough into your upper sleeve. Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth since germs spread this way. Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze. Alcohol-based hand cleaners are also effective. And stay home from work or school and limit contact with others to keep from infecting them."

Take flu antiviral drugs if your doctor recommends them.

Antiviral drugs are an important treatment option for the flu-not a substitute for vaccination. "Antiviral drugs are prescription medicines that are available as pills, liquid or an inhaler that fight against the flu by keeping flu viruses from reproducing in your body. They can make your illness milder and make you feel better faster. They may also prevent serious flu complications. This could be especially important for people at high risk."

Antiviral drugs are only helpful when started within 2 days of symptoms.

Key Changes to the 2008 Influenza Vaccination Recommendations:

Beginning with the 2008-09 influenza season, annual vaccination of all children aged 6 months - 19 years is recommended. Annual vaccination should begin in September or as soon as vaccine is available for the 2008-09 season, if feasible, but annual vaccination of all children aged 6 months - 19 years should begin no later than during the 2009-10 influenza season. CDC recommends giving flu vaccine to anyone who wants it.

Flu Outbreaks in Southwest Louisiana

As of November 22, there were no reported cases of the flu in Louisiana. However, sporadic episodes were reported in Texas. For up-to-date information, the CDC's Influenza Division prepares a weekly influenza surveillance report by state.

If you have questions about whether you should get a flu vaccine, consult your healthcare provider or Dr. Null with the Memorial/LSUHSC Family Medicine Center and Residency Program at (337) 494-6767.