Every evening on the local news, reports of deaths, statistics, and shot shortages fill my ears. Yep, it’s flu season.
While every winter, the media erupts with flu coverage and a flu frenzy spreads among the people (and certainly you may recall that Anna already broached this topic), the recent stories have caught my attention. Article after blog post after news piece after Facebook post continued to mention an alarming nuance in this year’s predominant flu bug: young adults more likely to experience complications.
And when I say young, I mean 20s, 30s, and 40s. Dear reader, that is me. And dear reader, that is many of you.
So I did a bit of digging and asking around. Turns out I pick “serious” over “silly.”
This year’s dominant strain of flu is our old friend H1N1, the Type A flu that made its rounds in 2009. However, the first ever H1N1 influenza emerged on the scene in humans in 1918; you may recognize its other name, the Spanish Flu. (Think Lavinia Swire, Downton Abbey). The H1N1 influenza circulating this year is a descendent of the 1918 epidemic.
Fort Worth mom of two, Cheryl McDonald, MD, with Tarrant County Infectious Disease Associates, explains that during most other flu seasons, “flu seems to hit the elderly population harder. However, H1N1 seems to be causing more severe disease in younger patients. It is thought this may be because elderly people may have some protective antibodies from prior H1N1 infection.”
Beth Mewis, MD, Internal Medicine MCNT, Harris Southwest, who is also a Cowtown mom, adds, “This year more of the affected individuals are young adults and middle-aged people, which is why it seems as though healthy people are more affected. We expect the number of cases to rise over the next few weeks.”
Just this past weekend, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), labeled this flu season a “national epidemic.”
Essentially, the flu spreads because infected droplets from coughing, sneezing, talking, etc. enter into another person’s eyes, nose, or mouth. You can also contract the virus by touching something contaminated by flu and then touching your eyes, nose, or mouth.
And once the virus is setting up shop in your body, you are contagious 1-2 days prior to first sign of symptoms and then the usually 5-7 days (but up to 10 days) after you’re suffering with the sniffles.
Another interesting tid bit regarding this year’s flu season: The rapid flu test, a.k.a. that horribly uncomfortable nasal test, has a lower sensitivity to the H1N1 virus, meaning that you could test negative but actually have influenza. A blood test can confirm if you are infected or not.
If you or your kiddos do become sick with flu-like symptoms, antiviral medications (a la Tamiflu) are available to decrease the severity of your symptoms; however, this is not a cure and must be taken within the first 48 hours of onset of illness.
While the flu, in all its gusto and glory, is BAD ENOUGH, more complicated issues arise when secondary bacterial infections occur. And a patient with influenza is more susceptible to these types of infections.
So what’s a mom to do?
(I realize some feathers might be ruffled, but here it is nonetheless.)
GET YOUR FLU SHOT, DARN IT.
The flu vaccine is recommended for all people ages 6 months and older. And typically those with the highest risk of complications are pregnant women and those under the age of 5 or over the age of 65. (Although, this is not necessarily the case this year as mentioned above.)
Dr. McDonald says, “The best way to protect against the flu is by taking the flu shot. The flu shot is very safe. It is made up of killed virus particles, so it cannot cause the flu. The most common side effects include: sore, red, or swollen at the site of the shot; low grade fever or body aches. It takes about 2 weeks for your body to develop protective antibodies from the flu vaccine, but even during the two week period, while your antibodies are developing, you have more protection than if you were unvaccinated.”
She continues, “In years that the vaccine matches the community strain well, the vaccine decreases the risk of flu illness in the overall population by about 60%. In one study where they looked at the risk of contracting flu after vaccination, they found that in a well-matched year, the risk of getting flue was decreased by 86%. In less well-matched years, the decrease in the risk of getting flu is more like 50%-65%.”
Yes, you can “get” the flu even after vaccination, but as Dr. Mewis again points out, “In individuals who have had the flu shot and contract the flu, they tend to have a milder case . . . . Risk of guillain barre [from the shot] is much less than risk of influenza.”
It’s also important to remember that good hand washing goes a long way is preventing the spread of disease–not just the flu, but also the stomach virus, strep, and on and on.