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Ellis: Flu facts vs. fiction

By Glenn Ellis

It’s still early, but the current influenza (flu) season is shaping up to be gentler than last winter’s unusually brutal one. However, seasonal flu activity this year is elevated nationally and continues to increase. In most parts of the country, illnesses right now are being caused by a flu strain that causes fewer hospitalizations and deaths than last year’s strain, according to Centers for Disease and Control Prevention (CDC) officials.

While flu season typically peaks in February, it is very important to understand that there are few things that are typical about the flu. The flu season is just starting to kick in; it’s now widespread in 30 states and more than six million people have already caught it.

One of the biggest mistakes that many of us make is to think that the flu is just a bad cold.

The flu is a serious disease. It is a highly contagious viral infection of the respiratory tract (nose, throat, and lungs) that can cause secondary complications and attack other organs in the body.

Since 1982, while we have been twice as likely to see a flu activity peak in February than other winter months, we have been just as likely to get that peak in December, January, or March.

You can also count on the fact that even in a mild flu season, a lot of kids get sick with the flu.

Some good news? So far, influenza A(H1N1) viruses are most common. That’s good, because H3N2 viruses are typically more severe. While such a good match doesn’t guarantee that this year’s flu vaccine will be effective, it is a very good sign.

Flu shots work. They aren’t perfect, but they can help prevent you from getting sick with the flu and have other benefits.

You’ve probably heard that you can get the flu from getting a flu vaccine. This is impossible. The flu vaccine contains an inactivated virus or no flu virus at all, so it cannot give you the flu. If you do get flu following vaccination, there are a few possible explanations.

Since it can take up to two weeks following a flu vaccine for your body to build the proper immune response to help prevent flu, you could have been exposed to the flu virus before you were protected by the vaccine. In some cases, people may feel a bit under the weather after they get vaccinated, which is a simple side effect of the vaccine, and should not be confused with actually being infected with the flu virus.  Rather, a slight fever or general achiness or fatigue can be a sign that your immune system is doing what it should be to build immunity to flu in response to the vaccine. This is not flu. When someone is sick with flu, they suffer severe and long-lasting symptoms.

Needless to say, many of us prefer to rely on “natural” remedies and avoid any side effects from prescription medicines in any health concern. The common opinion is that taking vitamin C, Echinacea or elderberry will prevent flu.

There is no conclusive evidence that these treatments are effective against flu. Annual flu vaccination is the best preventative measure you can take to protect yourself and your family from flu. In fact, studies show that flu vaccination can reduce the risk of flu illness by up to 60 percent. Even if you do get flu, those who are vaccinated greatly reduce their risk of flu-related complications that can lead to hospitalization or death.

An annual flu vaccine is the best way to protect against influenza and its potentially serious complications. There are many benefits to vaccination, including reducing the risk of flu illness, doctor’s visits, hospitalization, and even death in children. Flu vaccination also has been shown to reduce severity of illness among people who get vaccinated but still get sick.

Because flu viruses are constantly changing, flu vaccines are updated from one season to the next to protect against the most recent and most common circulating flu strains. This is why it is recommended that individuals get a flu vaccine every year. In addition, a person’s immune protection from vaccination declines over time; therefore, annual vaccination is needed for optimal protection. This is why some people, as they get older, start getting the flu each year.

The decline is influenced by several factors, including the antigen used in the vaccine, the age of the person being vaccinated, and the person’s general health (for example, certain chronic health conditions may have an impact on immunity). Older people and others with weakened immune systems may not generate the same amount of antibodies after vaccination; further, their antibody levels may drop more quickly when compared to young, healthy people.

My job is not to tell you to get, or not get, a flu vaccine. My job is to make sure that whatever decision you make is an informed decision.

Glenn Ellis is a health columnist and radio commentator who lectures, nationally and internationally on health related topics. Listen to Glenn, on radio in Birmingham or V94.9, Sundays at 7:50pm, or visit: www.glennellis.com.