Now’s the time to take a shot at flu prevention

To Your Health

Dr. Roger Hicks 

 Shortly after putting away your summer toys and making room for flannel shirts and boots in your closets, you should also be thinking about getting an annual flu shot to protect yourself during the fast-approaching flu season. 

When people talk about “the flu” they can mean anything from the common cold to “stomach flu,” meaning vomiting and diarrhea caused by a virus. But the word “flu” comes from “influenza,” a specific virus that causes widespread outbreaks of respiratory illness each winter.

In some years influenza has caused worldwide pandemics, like the “Spanish Flu” of 1918 during which about 500 million people were infected and at least 50 million died. There have been other pandemics since then, like the Hong Kong flu of 1969 and the Swine flu of 2009, which fortunately were not as severe.

But there is a vast reservoir of flu viruses circulating in animals – mainly birds – that pose an ever-present threat for another pandemic. We have made tremendous advances in our understanding and treatment of the flu since 1918, and there is now a global influenza surveillance system that includes 114 World health Organization members to detect flu viruses with pandemic potential. Still, influenza kills tens of thousands of people every year in the U.S., including children.

Prevention is always the best route in health care. Scientists throughout the world, including at our own Centers for Disease Control, recommend an annual vaccine as the best defense against influenza. Because the virus constantly mutates, the vaccine must be updated annually. And since flu epidemics occur in the winter, our vaccine for the 2018-2019 flu season is derived from influenza viruses causing illness in the Southern hemisphere’s 2018 winter, which is, of course, our summer. Some years the virus changes dramatically after our vaccine was made; in those years it is not as effective. But it always provides some protection and is recommended for everyone six months of age and older.

Because the virus evolves, it is important to get a flu shot each year. And since we never know when influenza will hit our community, the earlier you can get the shot, the better. It takes a couple of weeks after vaccination for your body to develop antibodies, so getting the shot in early fall before the full onset of the flu season is a good practice. October is a great month to visit your health practitioner or urgent care facility to be vaccinated, and most insurance plans will cover the cost of the shot.

Flu symptoms can be mild or quite severe, but usually start suddenly, and commonly include fever, muscle aches, headache, cough, mild sore throat, and fatigue. Not everyone has all those symptoms, but many people feel like they’ve been hit by a truck. Sneezing and a stuffy nose can also mean a bite from the flu bug, but they are more likely indicators of the common cold.

If you are feeling flu symptoms, the good news is there is a rapid in-office test for influenza, and influenza is one of the few viral illnesses for which there is a specific treatment. Unlike antibiotics, which kill existing bacteria, antivirals prevent viruses from multiplying. To be effective, these medicines, known as neuraminidase inhibitors, must be started early in the illness – ideally within first 48 hours. However, they still may be helpful even if started later, especially for those at high risk for complications – children younger than 5, adults 65 and older, and people with underlying medical conditions. Antibiotics are ineffective against viruses.

But don’t wait for symptoms to occur. Make a point of getting your flu shot early at a local facility such as Yubadocs and enjoy a healthy and happy fall. 

A director of the Urgent Care Association of America from 2011 to 2017, Dr. Roger Hicks served as the Association’s treasurer and then secretary. He is a founder and current board member of the Urgent Care Assurance Company, a malpractice company specializing in urgent care. He is the founding President of the California Urgent Care Association. He is also the founding president of the South Yuba River Citizens League and served on SYRCL’s Board of Directors for 30 years.