It's Flu Time!

You may have seen in the news last week that influenza (the flu) has hit California. It is only a matter of time before it hits Chico. The good news is that there is still time to protect yourself and your family. Here’s what you can do.

Influenza is not your average cold or vomiting / diarrheal illness. There are many viruses that cause those. The “stomach flu” that has been hitting the Chico area the last couple of months is not influenza.

The real flu is seven to ten days of high fever, headache, back and leg aches, cough, runny nose, congestion, sore throat, and just pure misery. We have 34,000 deaths per year on average in the U.S from influenza. Most of these are in the elderly or people with high risk conditions, but several hundred are in children and otherwise healthy teens and adults. Last year’s swine flu hit a lot more young and healthy people than usual.

It is especially important for the 6 month to 18 year olds to get the vaccine. Most epidemics get their start in the daycares, preschools and schools. Vaccinating the children has gotten rid of many other serious diseases in the U.S. - remember polio? It is estimated that if we can get 80% of the 6 month to 18 year olds immunized each year, we could break epidemic influenza in the UInited States. That would be huge.

Good hand washing and staying away from sick people can help. But the best chance you and your family have for avoiding the flu this season is to get the flu vaccine. The current recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control is that the flu vaccine is recommended for everyone older than six months of age. The people who are at high risk who should definitely get the flu vaccine are young children, pregnant women, people with chronic health conditions like asthma, diabetes, immune system dysfunction, or heart and lung disease, household contacts of under 6 month old babies, health care workers, child care workers, people who live with high risk patients and people over 65 years of age.

There are two types of vaccine available this year. The traditional shot and a nasal spray vaccine. The people who can get the nasal spray vaccine are otherwise healthy people age 2-49. Anyone else should get the shot. This years flu vaccine has the H1N1 “swine” flu in it as well as two other strains that are likely to come through this winter.

There is a lot of confusion about the flu vaccine. The biggest myth I want to debunk is that the flu vaccine can make you sick or have more colds during the winter if you get it. This is simply
not the case. The flu shot is made of a few purified proteins from the virus - there is no live virus in it. The nasal spray is a weakened flu virus. It can cause some runny nose scratchy or sore throat or low grade fever in the few days after the vaccine, but will not cause full blown flu.

It takes two to four weeks after the vaccine to develop immunity. If you are exposed to the flu in the week before getting the vaccine or in the couple weeks after getting it, you may still catch it. The CDC makes an educated guess each year as to what strains of the flu virus to include in the vaccine. Usually they are right. If a different strain comes through, you may be unprotected even if you have had the shot.

In any case, the flu is a potentially serious illness. There is still time to get vaccinated. Call your physician, visit one of the pharmacies that is giving the vaccine, go to a flu clinic or check with the health department. I hope you have a healthy flu season!

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