Living » Ask the Experts at East Jefferson General Hospital

Protect Yourself from the Flu

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Severe muscle aches, high fever, chills, headache, exhaustion. Most of us have stayed home with symptoms of the flu at some time in our lives. Doctors say the best way to avoid getting the flu in the future is to get vaccinated.

It isn't just discomfort. Influenza is a serious, potentially fatal disease, especially for young children and the elderly. Every year approximately 36,000 people (mostly 65 years and older) die from influenza, and more than 200,000 are hospitalized in the United States. Flu season, which starts as early as October and runs as late as May, is already upon us, so the best time to get a flu shot is this month, although you can be vaccinated through December.

The vaccine contains flu-causing viruses that have been inactivated, so you cannot get the disease from the immunization. These inactivated viruses cause your body to build antibodies that in turn protect you against infection. Protection starts about two weeks after you receive the vaccine.

Anyone can get a flu shot to reduce their chance of getting sick, but people at high risk for complications from the disease definitely should be vaccinated, says Dr. David Euans, program director of the Family Medicine Residency Program at East Jefferson General Hospital. 'The priority for getting a flu shot is for children aged 6 months to 5 years, pregnant women, people 50 years of age and older, people of any age with chronic medical conditions and people who live in nursing homes or other long-term care facilities," he says. People who live with or care for any of the above, caregivers of children younger than 6 months old and health-care workers also should be vaccinated.

Those who get a flu shot may experience some soreness around the injection site, a low-grade fever or a few aches for a day or two, but serious side effects from the flu vaccine are rare. If you have had a severe allergic reaction to eggs or a previous flu shot, tell your doctor before you are immunized.

The flu vaccine is highly effective, but how well it works depends on the age and health of the patient and how similar the flu strains in the vaccine are to the flu viruses circulating in the community. When the virus strains in the vaccine and those circulating in public are similar, a flu shot will prevent influenza in 70 to 90 percent of healthy people under 65 years old.

'The flu vaccine is very effective," Euans says. 'It is one of the most effective vaccines used. Often people who think they have gotten the flu after being vaccinated really just have a bad cold. Flu will be accompanied by an extremely high temperature " 102 degrees or higher " headache and severe muscle aches."

You need to get a flu shot every year as the viruses in the vaccine change annually. The viruses included in the vaccine are based on the findings of the World Health Organization in conjunction with the recommendation of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The vaccine in your system also decreases in efficacy during the course of a year, so it's necessary to be vaccinated every year.

In addition to getting a flu shot, there are other health habits that can help protect you from getting the illness. Avoid close contact with people who are sick, and if you are ill, stay home so you won't infect others. Cover you mouth and nose with a tissue when you sneeze or cough, avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth as germs often are spread this way, and wash your hands often. Finally, get enough sleep and exercise, keep your stress level low, drink plenty of fluids and eat a nutritious diet.

Euans says there is a good supply of flu vaccine available. Contact your physician's office, drug store or health department to find out where you can get vaccinated.

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