Take Action Against the Flu

By Dr. Shefali V. Parmar

Although I welcome the change in season and colorful leaves, fall also marks the start of our “flu season" which begins in October and starts to ease off in March/April. Influenza, most commonly to as the “flu" is a highly infectious respiratory viral illness that often brings on sudden high fevers, body aches, chills, nasal congestion, sore throat, and cough.

In some instances, the flu can cause serious complications including severe respiratory illness and neurological conditions. Last year alone, 80,000 Americans died due to the flu and its complications, making 2017-2018 flu season one of the deadliest thus far. Of those children who died due to flu complications, 80 percent were unvaccinated, implying the vaccine could have saved many of those lives. Prevention is the best way to fight the flu and the annual seasonal flu vaccine is the best first step.

The flu virus is unpredictable but the flu vaccination predictably reduces flu illnesses, the severity of flu symptoms, missed work or school due to the flu, and flu-related hospitalization. So, if you get the flu even after taking the vaccine, you and/or your child are likely to experience milder symptoms and more likely to stay out of the hospital. Studies show that flu vaccination reduces a child's chance of dying from influenza, too.

This should not be surprising as vaccines help build immunity or, more precisely, help your own body make antibodies that specifically fight the flu virus. I often tell my patients that getting your vaccine is similar to buckling your seatbelt. Neither the vaccine nor the seatbelt is perfect, but both can save your life.

We may be able to keep the flu out of our homes and communities by taking precautions that protect you and your family members. This type of protection from vaccines is called herd immunity.

Basically, we can better fight the flu if we all fight together. The more people in our community that get the vaccine, the less people will get sick. The elderly, pregnant women, the very young, and those with compromised immune systems or are battling other medical problems are particularly more vulnerable. It is advised that all household members aged 6 months and above get their flu vaccine as soon as possible.

Choosing the right flu vaccine for yourself and your children may seem overwhelming as there are many types of flu vaccines. In general, I recommend the inactivated quadrivalent Influenza vaccine which confers protection from four different flu viruses.

The dosing depends on the age and is best determined by your doctor or pediatrician. Most common side effects from the vaccine include pain, redness, and swelling at the injection sites. One cannot get the flu from the vaccine nor does it make one more susceptible to the flu – these are myths. The flu vaccine has a long history of being safe and effective at reducing flu-related illnesses and deaths.

Other preventive measures to stop the spread of germs include washing hands, staying home when sick, and visiting your doctor within 1 – 2 days of falling ill with flu-like symptoms. Try to avoid close contact with sick people. While sick, limit contact with others to avoid infecting them. If you are sick with flu-like illness, the CDC recommends that you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever has resolved. Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you sneeze or cough.

Wash your hands often. If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Further, clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that may be contaminated with germs.

Antiviral drugs can be prescribed to treat and prevent further illness if you get sick with the flu or are exposed and have a chronic medical condition. Antiviral medicines can shorten the duration of the illness and make it milder in severity.

These medicines may also prevent serious flu complications. Because these medicines work best when started within 48 hours of getting sick, CDC recommends prompt medical evaluation and antiviral treatment especially for those considered high risk. Know how to get in touch with your doctor's office to make an appointment.

So, as we prepare for the festive fall season ahead with Halloween, Diwali, Navaratri, and Thanksgiving, let's all make it a priority to get our flu vaccine. Take the first step in preventing the flu by scheduling your flu vaccine appointment as soon as possible. I wish you all good health.

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Dr. Parmar is a Duke trained Pediatrician at Cornerstone Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine in Cary, NC. Email: shefali.v.parmar@gmail.com