Flu shot first line of defense against winter illness

Flu clinics

The VNA's drop-in flu clinics begin Tuesday in Routt County and Oct. 7 in Moffat County. Flu shots cost $22 for adults and $14 or less for children. The nasal-flu vaccine also is available. For schedules and locations, call the flu hotline at 871-7684 or visit www.nwcovna.org.>

Preventing the flu:

• Get a flu shot.

• Wash your hands and carry hand sanitizer.

• Cough or sneeze into a tissue or your elbow - not your hands.

• Don't go to work or school or visit older adults, infants or people with chronic medical conditions if you are sick.

- Visiting Nurse Association

Many people may accept a week in bed with a fever, cough, stuffy head and achy muscles as a typical, if unpleasant, part of every winter.

That doesn't have to be the case.

Prevention measures, starting with an early-season flu shot, can help ward off a virus that, for many people, can mean missing work, school or time on the slopes. For others, including older adults, those with chronic conditions and young children, getting sick with the flu can be much worse.

Influenza and its complications send more than 200,000 people to the hospital and cause about 36,000 deaths each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The majority of hospitalizations and deaths are among people ages 65 and older.

Concern about influenza virus, especially among high risk individuals and people who care for them, has spurred a national health objective aiming for 60 percent of high risk persons to receive annual flu vaccinations by 2010 - a big leap from the estimated 20 percent currently receiving the vaccine.

More serious than the common cold, influenza is spread by coughing, sneezing and nasal secretions. Symptoms include sore throat, chills, fatigue, headache and runny nose, though the virus can lead to pneumonia, dehydration and other problems. Complications in children include high fever, diarrhea and seizures.

Vaccination is recommended for anyone ages 50 or older because of weakened immune systems and underlying medical conditions. Pregnant women and children ages 6 months to 19 years also should be vaccinated.

Young children can get sicker with the flu, but children also are more infectious. Data has shown that children are contagious days before they even experience symptoms and are contagious longer than adults, said Janice Poirot, public health nurse at the Visiting Nurse Association.

"Consequently, children, seemingly healthy, may be visiting grandparents and are spreading influenza to them," she said.

The flu virus can worsen chronic conditions in people of all ages because of their weakened immune systems and issues related to their illnesses. People who should get vaccinated against the flu include those with heart, lung, kidney or liver disease, asthma, diabetes, cancer, HIV/AIDS and muscle or nerve disorders.

"Herd immunity" - when family, visitors, caregivers and others also have been vaccinated - is the best way to further protect higher-risk individuals from the flu, Poirot said.

Vaccines

Each year, scientists from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, CDC, World Health Organization and other institutions study virus samples collected from around the world to determine which strains are most likely to be prevalent in the following season. The FDA determines which three strains manufacturers should include in vaccines for the U.S.

Flu season typically lasts from November through April, with the peak occurring in February. It's best to be vaccinated in October or November, but vaccination later in the season still can be beneficial. Protection lasts up to a year.

Because of the length of time it takes to develop the flu vaccine, it doesn't always match the viruses circulating at any given time throughout the flu season, Poirot said.

Even in a "mismatched" year, however, the vaccine can significantly reduce the severity of the illness.

While the flu vaccine will protect against the influenza virus, it will not protect against other illnesses with similar symptoms or viral gastroenteritis, commonly referred to as the stomach flu.

There are two types of flu vaccine. The flu shot is an inactivated vaccine containing a killed virus. It's approved for people older than six months, including those with chronic conditions and older adults.

Although a flu shot will not give someone the flu, they may experience minor side effects such as low-grade fever and aches. It can take as long as two weeks after vaccination for a person to develop protection.

Nasal spray flu vaccines are an option for people and children who hate needles. The vaccine is approved for healthy individuals ages 2 through 49 who are not pregnant. It contains live, weakened flu viruses that do not cause the flu but can result in symptoms including headache, sore throat and cough in adults, and fever, muscle aches and runny nose in children.

Allergic reactions to the influenza vaccine are rare. People should consult their doctor before getting the vaccine if they are allergic to chicken eggs, have had a severe reaction to the vaccine in the past, have a moderate to severe illness with a fever or have had Guillain-Barre syndrome. Children younger than 6 months should not receive the vaccine.

Tamera Manzanares writes for the Aging Well program and can be reached at tammarie74@yahoo.com. Aging Well, a division of Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association, is a community-based program of healthy aging for adults ages 50 and older. For more information or to view past articles, log onto www.agingwelltoday.com or call 871-7676.

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