Health take-away: Flu season is here — get vaccinated


The symptoms of flu are dramatic and seem to come on suddenly. Our patients tell us they feel like they've been hit by a truck — that they couldn't get out of bed even if they wanted to. Headache, body aches and pains, sore throat, fever, and coughing are among the most common symptoms. Severe respiratory illness including pneumonia can be a frequent side effect.

Clinicians are well-trained in recognizing flu from other viral illnesses that seem to invade during this time of year. Your doctor will not prescribe an antibiotic unless a respiratory infection accompanies the illness. There are several anti-viral medications that can be very effective in shortening the length of the flu, if taken within two days of the first symptoms.

To avoid what can truly be a devastating illness, the best protection is a flu shot. American health officials looked to the far East to determine what vaccine to prepare for this year's flu season. That's because flu typically appears during the winter months — no matter where winter takes place on the globe. The strains that are prevalent on the other side of the world will most likely make their way to the U.S., giving scientists the information they need to produce the annual vaccine that will be our best defense against the virus.

It's not always an exact science. Last year's flu shot was less effective in preventing the virus because flu strains in the vaccine did not match what was actually circulating in public. As the flu migrated, the genetic material in the virus changed. But that's a fairly rare event. Statistics demonstrate that people who are inoculated against the flu are far less likely to get sick than those who are not, sparing them from an illness that can bring with it very serious side effects. Every year in the U.S., thousands of people die from the flu.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this year's vaccine is designed to protect against the main virus strains that evidence suggests will be the most common for this season. Trivalent vaccines will protect against three main viruses, while quadrivalent vaccines will include an additional strain. Your healthcare provider can suggest which vaccine is right for you.

In addition to a flu shot, the best precautions are still the basics: wash your hands vigorously and often, and stay at least three feet away from others whenever possible since the virus is dispersed in droplets from sneezing and coughing, which can easily spread the flu. Those who do get sick should stay home to protect co-workers, friends and the public.

This is important, since the flu can be a particularly serious illness to babies, elderly people and those with chronic disease. Complications from the flu can be deadly among these groups.

One of the most common complaints about the flu vaccine comes from those who got the vaccine — and got sick anyway. While it's possible, research demonstrates that cases of flu following an inoculation are less severe. What's much more likely is that the individual was exposed to another of the many viruses that circulate during the winter months. It's also important to remember that it takes two weeks to build up antibodies to the virus strains included in the vaccine. The vaccine is ready now and there are plenty of places where it's available, including your physician's office, Urgent Care facilities, and even large retail drug stores. Most insurance plans cover the vaccine.

By the end of March, there's a light at the end of the flu tunnel. Lessen your risk of contracting the flu this season, and protect everyone around you. Get the flu vaccine!

Paula Aucoin, MD, is an Infectious Disease consultant and Medical Director of Infection Control and Prevention at Berkshire Medical Center. Karen Benzie, RN, is BMC Vice President of Integrated Care & Home Health


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