This probably sounds familiar: You shiver, sweat and your throat is on fire. Your head is pounding, every muscle aches and you’re exhausted. Even getting out of bed seems impossible.
You’ve got the flu. It’s not pretty. In fact, it’s pretty awful.
Influenza is a contagious respiratory tract infection that can turn your life upside down for at least a week, or longer—and with worse symptoms — depending on your medical condition and your immune system.
The elderly are especially vulnerable, and are among the estimated 200,000 patients every year in this country who are hospitalized or succumb to the illness.
According to the Oregon Health Authority, between 10 and 20 percent of the population becomes infected with influenza viruses.
This year in Oregon, and throughout the Northwest, the flu season is projected to be typical, but still serious and unpredictable. Last year’s bout was a bit worse than average.
Because influenza viruses mutate every year — something called genetic drift — a different vaccine must be made each year. This year, the vaccine is in ample supply and should be tough enough to do the job. In fact, there are two vaccines available — one of them more powerful than the other for those over 65.
A cautionary note: Because the nasal version of the flu vaccine was considered less than effective last year, the Center for Disease Control is not recommending its use this year.
As for those with allergies to eggs or other ingredients in vaccines, there are egg-free vaccines available.
Nevertheless, for some reason, you may have decided not to get a flu shot.
“There are a lot of people who don’t want to get vaccinated because they are fearful,” says Dr. John Townes, interim division chief, Division of Infectious Diseases, Oregon Health and Science University. “But I believe that fear is unwarranted. If you’ve ever had the flu, you would understand the risks of vaccination are far outweighed by the benefits of vaccination.”
To those who insist that they got the flu from a flu shot, “really, what they likely had was a different virus or an immune response that gave them a low-grade fever for a day or two and some muscle aches, but nothing like the influenza virus would do to them,” Townes says.
Calculating the risk
What’s your risk? The biggest factors are who you are and where you hang out.
“If you don’t come into contact with the influenza virus,” Townes says, “you’re not going to get influenza.” But, “people who are in contact with a lot of unvaccinated people, who are in environments like nursing homes, or who have significant contact with the public or young children who carry influenza, they will be at risk of influenza.”
He’s a strong advocate of having kids vaccinated, too.
“There isn’t a good reason not to vaccinate your children,” Townes says. “It’s one way of protecting grandparents.”
Hospitalizations typically go up during the flu season, in large part because the influenza virus complicates existing baseline ailments, aggravating conditions such as heart failure, kidney problems or bacterial pneumonia.
“It is like this,” Townes says, “when a hurricane moves through an area, the hurricane does some damage, but then there’s also collateral damage and complications from that event.” Those are the kinds of complications that often create severe illness and take lives.
Most of the damage is done during the first day or two, so contact your doctor at the earliest sign of symptoms. There are anti-viral treatments that can lessen the effects of the flu. Don’t wait.
Flu can lead to pneumonia, especially among those with compromised immune systems. Advanced symptoms include sharp chest pains, difficulty breathing, low blood pressure and dizziness. If you have a heart problem, flu makes it worse. It’s the same with neurological, diabetic and kidney problems.
Besides getting a flu shot, Townes encourages older adults to also get a pneumococcal vaccination to help fend off pneumonia.
Those most likely to suffer complications from the flu are children younger than 5, but especially younger than 2 years old, pregnant women, and adults ages 65 and older.
The fact is, the flu bug is already buzzing around again this year. And while there are no absolute guarantees that an influenza vaccine will prevent you from getting bit, there are steps you can take to help fend off the little bugger.
Vaccination is the first step. Beyond that, the medical community says these tips will make a difference:
• Eat a balanced diet.
• Get plenty of sleep.
• Wash your hands often with soap and water.
• Clean and disinfect surfaces that may be contaminated.
• Avoid contact with sick people.
• Cover your nose and mouth with tissue when you cough or sneeze.
It is worth a little healthy prevention to avoid the nasty chills and ills of influenza.