Consider these figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Every year in the United States an average of 5 to 20 percent of the population gets the flu. Complications result in about 200,000 people being hospitalized. From the 1976-1977 season to the 2006-2007 flu season, annual flu-associated deaths ranged from about 3,000 to about 49,000 people.
Common flu symptoms include fever or feeling feverish with chills, although not everyone who has the flu has a fever. Other symptoms include cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose or both, muscle or body aches or both, headaches and fatigue. Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, although this is more common in children than adults.
An annual flu shot is your best defense against this illness. You need another shot each flu season. This year, however, you need only one flu shot, because the vaccine for H1N1 is part of the seasonal flu vaccination.
Each year immunologists identify the three strains of influenza virus most likely to infect the greatest number of people. They often base their decision on the strains from the previous flu season. Since H1N1 was one of those strains for 2009-2010, it will be part of the vaccine formulation for 2010-2011. Protection from the vaccine develops about two weeks after you get the shot and may last up to one year.
In recent years flu vaccine sometimes has been scarce, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has set priorities for the groups who should receive the vaccine. This year the CDC recommends a flu shot for everyone age 6 months and older.
Influenza can lead to serious complications for people with other medical conditions. Those at high risk for complications from the flu include:
• Children younger than 5 and especially younger than 2 years
• Adults 65 and older
• Pregnant women
• People younger than 19 on long-term aspirin therapy
• People who have asthma, neurological and neurodevelopmental conditions, chronic lung disease, heart disease, disorders of the blood, kidney, liver, metabolism or endocrine system (including diabetes), a weakened immune system due to disease or medication (such as people with HIV or AIDS or cancer or those on chronic steroids) or who are morbidly obese with a body mass index of 40 or more.
Last flu season, American Indians and Alaskan Natives seemed to be at higher risk of flu complication.
Although some retail stores began offering flu shots in September, getting a shot in November, December or even later remains valuable. While scientists do their best, the influenza virus is unpredictable. The flu season changes from one year to the next, peaking in January or February most years and sometimes occurring as late as May.
You especially need the protection of a vaccination because people can have the virus and spread it one day before they have symptoms and for five to seven days while they are sick. People with weakened immune systems could infect others for even longer.
The flu virus travels in fluid droplets when people cough or sneeze. The flu enters a person’s body via the nose, eyes or mouth when he or she comes in contact with the droplets or even with a surface on which the virus has landed. If you touch the surface and then touch your nose, eyes or mouth, the virus can enter your system. Thus washing your hands frequently and vigorously with soap and warm water offers further protection against the flu.
Many health insurance plans offer flu shots for their members at little or no out-of-pocket cost. You also can find flu shots at a reasonable cost at flu clinics around the area. The Northern Nevada Medical Group, for example, accepts new patients, walk-ins, same-day appointments, and most area insurance plans including Medicare. For all that you would ever want to know about the flu, visit http://www.cdc.gov/flu/.
Louis Delionback, MD, is a family medicine physician with the Northern Nevada Medical Group. Dr. Delionback has been in private practice in the Sparks area for the past 26 years. Dr. Delionback’s office is located in the Vista Terrace Medical Building at 2345 E. Prater Way, Suite 201 in Sparks. His phone number is 358-0301.