Here’s the real deal about flu and flu shots.

Flu is short for influenza, a disease of the lungs that’s caused by any number of related viruses. The flu season runs from December to April, usually heaviest in February.  Typical flu symptoms include fever, body aches, tiredness, cough and, sometimes, running nose and a sore throat.

Other respiratory illnesses may have similar symptoms. SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) is one example. That disease broke out last winter in southeast Asia and rapidly spread to a number of countries, resulting in 8437 cases and 813 deaths worldwide. No medical treatment for SARS exists so quarantine (isolation to prevent exposure of others) is recommended. Currently, the disease is contained, and no new cases have been reported for several months. However, a fresh outbreak this winter is possible, and medical personnel will be on the alert for it.

Influenza also can be fatal but seldom is for healthy adults. The main danger is that the flu will develop into pneumonia. It also can cause bronchitis or sinus and ear infections, and it can worsen chronic conditions such as asthma. Flu can be treated with antiviral drugs, but these have side effects and shorten the normal duration of infection only by one day. Generally, the doctor prescribes no treatment other than rest, plenty of fluids and non-aspirin, over-the-counter medications to control pain and fever.

While there is no vaccination against SARS, vaccination against flu is possible. Indeed, flu vaccination is recommended for everyone older than 65 or younger than two, everyone with chronic medical conditions and everyone who is a health care provider.

This year, for the first time, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a nasal spray flu vaccine for use by people between the ages of five and 49. Manufactured by MedImmune, Inc., the spray is marketed under the name FluMist. A doctor’s prescription is required.

For many people, the spray will be easier to take than a shot, which up to now has been the only way to vaccinate. However, until it is approved for use by children and the elderly, the spray will be of no help to the most vulnerable population. Thus, flu shots remain the only way to protect older people, young children and those with chronic conditions.

“If possible, everyone should be vaccinated,” says LHSFNA Health Promotion Division Director Mary Jane MacArthur. “We need to debunk the myths that flu shots are unnecessary or dangerous. Flu is dangerous, and vaccination will prevent flu almost all the time. When it doesn’t prevent flu, vaccination will reduce its impact and minimize the chances of spreading it to others. And there’s absolutely no way to catch the flu from the shot or the spray.”

General Principles of Infectious Disease Control

  • Have any symptoms of respiratory or diarrheal illnesses evaluated by a physician and practice proper infection control to avoid exposing others
  • Cover you mouth when you cough or sneeze
  • Wash your hands frequently and properly
  • Use proper methods of food handling
  • Maintain cleanliness of kitchen and bathroom surfaces
  • If your doctor determines that you have an infectious illness and recommends that you stay home, do so; don’t share infections with your co-workers

Source: American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine

[Steve Clark]