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Monday, December 03, 2012 - Commonly asked questions about the flu

By Rosie Kern

In case you didn’t know, this week, December 2-8 is National Influenza Vaccination Week (NIVW).  Although the flu vaccine has been offered for many years, many people still have questions about the flu and the vaccine.  Here are answers to some common questions about the flu.

What is influenza (also called flu)?
The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infects the nose, throat, and lungs. The flu virus is spread by coughing, sneezing or nasal secretions. It can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death. The best way to prevent the flu is by getting a flu vaccine each year.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 5 to 20 percent of Americans come down with the flu during each flu season which typically lasts from November to March. Children are two to three times more likely than adults to get sick with the flu, and children frequently spread the virus to others.

Although most people recover from the illness, the CDC estimates that in the United States more than 200,000 people are hospitalized and about 36,000 individuals die from the flu and its complications every year.

What is the flu vaccine?
Each year, experts from Food and Drug Administration (FDA), World Health Organization (WHO), U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other institutions identify the influenza viruses that are the most likely to cause illness during the upcoming flu season. The vaccine that is developed protects against three influenza viruses that research indicates will be most common that year.

Flu seasons are unpredictable and can be severe. Several factors influence the type of flu season we may experience including:

  • What flu viruses are spreading
  • How much flu vaccine is available
  • When vaccine is available
  • How many people get vaccinated
  • How well the flu vaccine is matched to flu viruses that are causing illness

 Why should I get the flu vaccine?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and many other organizations all encourage individuals to get the flu shot to protect themselves and people with whom they have contact. Certain populations are at greater risk for serious complications if they get the flu including older people, young children, pregnant women and people with certain health conditions - such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease, and persons who live in facilities such as nursing homes.

According to the CDC, the most effective means of prevention is a yearly flu vaccine for everyone over the age of six months. 

Some medical conditions may prevent individuals from receiving the vaccine. For example, individuals who have a severe allergy to chicken eggs or who have had a severe reaction to an influenza vaccination in the past should not be vaccinated without first consulting a physician. Also, people with a history of Guillain-Barré Syndrome should consult a physician before taking the vaccine.

What are possible side-effects of the vaccine?
Possible side-effects of the vaccine include soreness, redness or swelling where the shot was given; a low grade fever and aches. It these problems occur, they only last one or two days.

“Flu continues to be the most frequent cause of death from a vaccine-preventable disease in the United States. The vaccine has a proven safety record over many decades and is still the most effective prevention tool we have, says Janice Poirot, RN of the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association. “Vaccination is especially important for preventing flu from spreading to vulnerable groups, such as young infants, the elderly, pregnant women and those with underlying medical conditions.”

 Along with getting a flu vaccine, the CDC recommends several preventive actions to stop the spread of germs:

  • Covering your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze
  • Washing your hands frequently with soap and water
  • Avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth
  • Avoiding close contact with individuals who are sick

More information on the flu can be found on the CDC website at http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/season/. For a flu vaccination, visit your healthcare provider or take advantage of the drop-in flu clinics offered by the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association on Thursdays in December. 

 Rosie Kern is manager of marketing and communications Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at rosie.kern@yvmc.org.

 This article was printed in the December 3, 2012 issue of Steamboat Today.