Seasonal and H1N1 Flu
The double whammy flu season is just around the corner. It is very clear that we must be prepared to deal with two types of influenza this year. The two different flu types are seasonal flu and a "novel" flu — H1N1 or swine flu.
Seasonal flu is so named because, in our part of the world, it appears in December and lasts until March or April. The novel flu, which is H1N1, is so called because it has just recently spread. In general, we have not developed immunity. H1N1 has proven to be more unpredictable and has not observed the typical flu season. This novel flu has spread throughout the United States and will likely linger past next spring. Another difference is that younger people and pregnant women have been particularly vulnerable.
If you do not take precautions to prevent seasonal and H1N1 flu, you are more likely to contract one. If you are really unlucky, you may become sick with both viruses. The biggest risk from not protecting yourself is that these viruses can be deadly. Approximately 30,000 people in the United States die each year from the flu.
Spread and Prevention of Influenza
Influenza is a preventable virus that is highly transmissible, which means that it is very easy for one human to spread it to another. Both forms of the virus can spread from an infected person to a healthy person through the nose, eyes and mouth.
Understanding how influenza spreads helps emphasize the importance of prevention. Avoid contact with anyone known to be sick with the flu. Wash your hands often to protect yourself from germs. If you are caring for someone with seasonal or H1N1 flu, particularly H1N1, you may be advised to wear a disposable mask, gloves and even a surgical gown. If you contract the flu, stay home. Do not sneeze or cough within three feet of another person’s space. Also, do not shake hands or otherwise touch someone who is not infected.
Get the Shot or Nasal Spray
Another very important way to prevent the flu is immunization. Experts recommend two separate immunizations this year: one for seasonal flu and one for H1N1. Flu shots are most often given, but a nasal spray is also available.
Since the vaccine for seasonal flu is already available, you should get it first. The second vaccine must be given three or four weeks later, which should give enough time for the H1N1 vaccine to become more readily available. Currently, the H1N1 vaccine isn’t in adequate supply.
Always consult with your physician about whether you should get one or both vaccines. But, as a rule of thumb, most people older than 65 should get both.
How do I know if I have the flu? If I do, what should I do?
Most likely, readers of this column have had “the flu” more than once and are able to recognize symptoms. Nevertheless, it is important to be familiar with the symptoms of seasonal flu and H1N1. Symptoms of both types are nearly identical. Usually, people experiencing symptoms have been exposed to a person infected with the virus within seven days of the onset of symptoms: all-over body aches, fever, coughing, lack of energy, and/or lack of appetite. Some people experience a headache. People with H1N1 may experience diarrhea and nausea. Influenza diagnosis is made by a physician who can perform a swab test at an office remote laboratory, which usually takes several days.
Treatment of All Influenza
Call your doctor at the first sign of flu: a sudden high fever, often with chills and muscle aches. Call your doctor — do not visit the office unless advised to do so. Antiviral medications can reduce the severity but need to be started in the first 48 hours of symptoms. Rest, good diet, plenty of fluids, and a pain reliever for aches and pains are often recommended. In patients who require it, physician-ordered Tamiflu or Relenza are effective. If fever is severely high or you become dehydrated with very dark urine, a trip to the doctor is indicated. Because the flu virus can progress and cause life threatening complications, it is important to stay in touch with your physician.
Healthy aging requires that you get flu shots and keep your distance from people who have it.
How effective is the flu vaccine?
Vaccine effectiveness varies from year to year, depending upon the degree of similarity between the influenza virus strains included in the vaccine and the strain or strains that circulate during the influenza season. Vaccine strains must be chosen 9 to 10 months before the influenza season, and sometimes mutations occur in the circulating strains of viruses between the time vaccine strains are chosen and the next influenza season. These mutations sometimes reduce the ability of the vaccine-induced antibody to inhibit the newly mutated virus, thereby reducing vaccine effectiveness.
Vaccine effectiveness also varies from one person to another, depending on factors such as age and overall health.