*The U.S. flu season is well underway and the main circulating strain is H1N1, the type responsible for the global flu pandemic of 2009-2010.
Flu activity is increasing in the United States with most states reporting widespread influenza activity.
Based on data from tracking by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the flu season began most heavily in the South but has now spread nationwide with cases increasing in all states.
Both hospitalizations and deaths are being reported nationally this season, with the peak yet to come.
Most persons who get the flu improve within a week (though they may have a lingering cough and get tired easily long after a week passes); however, the flu can cause serious complications.
If you’re young and healthy, influenza usually isn’t serious. Although you may feel miserable while you have it, the flu usually goes away with no lasting effects.
Flu complications, such as pneumonia, usually appear after the patient starts to feel better.
You can have flu complications if you get a bacterial infection, which can cause pneumonia in your weakened lungs. The flu virus itself also can cause pneumonia.
Complications usually appear after you start feeling better. After a brief period of improvement, you may suddenly get these symptoms
- High fever
- Shaking chills
- Chest pain with each breath
- Coughing that produces thick, yellow-greenish-colored mucus
Pneumonia can be a very serious and sometimes life-threatening condition. If you have any of these symptoms, you should contact your health care provider immediately to get the appropriate treatment.
Pneumonia is the major serious complication of influenza and can be very serious. It can develop about 5 days after viral influenza. More than 90% of the deaths caused by influenza and pneumonia occur among older adults. Flu-related pneumonia nearly always occurs in high-risk individuals, such as the following:
- People with weakened immune systems, such as AIDS patients
- Elderly patients, particularly patients in nursing home
- Very young children (it may be difficult to tell whether pneumonia is related to influenza or caused by respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)
- Hospitalized patients and anyone with serious medical conditions, such as diabetes, heart, circulation, or lung disorders, particularly chronic lung disease
- Drug abusers who use needles
Reye’s syndrome, a condition that affects the nerves, sometimes develops in children and teenagers who are recovering from the flu. Reye’s syndrome begins with nausea and vomiting, but the progressive mental changes (such as confusion or delirium) cause the greatest concern.
The syndrome often begins in young people after they take aspirin to get rid of fever or pain. Although very few children develop Reye’s syndrome, you should consult a health care provider before giving aspirin or products that contain aspirin to children.
Flu complications in adults can occur if they develop a bacterial infection, which can cause pneumonia in their weakened lungs. However, the flu virus alone can also cause pneumonia.
In spite of the controversy and difficulty many are having over whether to take the vaccine, there are a few things you should know in regards to vaccines and the flu.
Two influenza vaccines are available—an injected vaccine (the flu shot) and a “Nasal Mist” influenza vaccine.
The flu shot is an inactivated vaccine (containing killed virus) that is given with a needle, usually in the arm. Because the viruses are inactive, they cannot cause infections. The vaccine preparation is based on the strains of the flu viruses that are in circulation at the time and includes A and B viruses expected to circulate the following winter. Viruses for the flu shot are grown in eggs. The flu shot is approved for use in persons older than 6 months, including healthy persons and those with chronic medical conditions.
When the “match” between vaccine and circulating strains is close, the flu shot prevents influenza in about 70% to 90% of healthy persons younger than 65 years. Among elderly persons living outside chronic-care facilities and those persons with chronic medical conditions, the flu shot is 30% to 70% effective in preventing hospitalization for pneumonia and influenza. Among elderly nursing home residents, the flu shot is most effective in preventing severe illness, secondary complications, and deaths related to the flu. In this population, the shot can be 50% to 60% effective in preventing hospitalization or pneumonia and 80% effective in preventing death from the flu.
The flu shot can cause adverse effects, the most common of which in children and adults is soreness at the site of the vaccination. Other adverse effects, especially in children who previously have not been exposed to the flu virus, include fever, tiredness, and sore muscles. These adverse effects may begin 6 to 12 hours after vaccination and may last up to 2 days.
The new pandemic of swine flu has killed 76 children in the United States since it emerged in April, and is worsening. Many of the children who have died had neurological conditions such as muscular dystrophy or cerebral palsy.
The lingering question and debate among scientists and regular folks like us remains, “Does getting a vaccination really make a difference”?
According to an article in The Atlantic Magazine, the history of flu vaccination suggests other reasons to doubt claims that it dramatically reduces mortality. In 2004, for example, vaccine production fell behind, causing a 40 percent drop in immunization rates. Yet mortality did not rise. In addition, vaccine “mismatches” occurred in 1968 and 1997: in both years, the vaccine that had been produced in the summer protected against one set of viruses, but come winter, a different set was circulating. In effect, nobody was vaccinated. Yet death rates from all causes, including flu and the various illnesses it can exacerbate, did not budge.
It is possible to get sick with flu even if you have been vaccinated (although you won’t know for sure unless you get a flu test and it is positive). This is possible for the following reasons:
- You may be exposed to a flu virus shortly before getting vaccinated or during the period that it takes the body to gain protection after getting vaccinated. This exposure may result in you becoming ill with flu before the vaccine begins to protect you. (About 2 weeks after vaccination, antibodies that provide protection develop in the body.)
- You may be exposed to a flu virus that is not included in the seasonal flu vaccine. There are many different flu viruses that circulate every year. The composition of the flu shot is reviewed each season and updated if needed to protect against the three viruses that research suggests will be most common. Characterization of flu viruses collected this season in the United States indicates that most circulating viruses are like the vaccine viruses; however, there is a smaller percentage of viruses that the vaccine would not be expected to protect against.
Unfortunately, some people can get infected with a flu virus the flu vaccine is designed to protect against despite getting vaccinated. Protection provided by flu vaccination can vary widely, based in part on health and age factors of the person getting vaccinated. In general, the flu vaccine works best among young healthy adults and older children. Some older people and people with certain chronic illnesses may develop less immunity after vaccination. While vaccination offers the best protection against flu infection, it’s still possible that some people may become ill after being vaccinated. Flu vaccination is not a perfect tool, but it is the best tool currently at our disposal to prevent flu.
Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one.
Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!
This column is for informational purposes only, and is not intended to replace medical advice from your doctor or a medical professional.
Glenn Ellis, author of Which Doctor?, is a Health Advocacy Communications Specialist. He is a national health columnist and radio commentator who lectures on health related topics.
For more good health information, visit: www.glennellis.com.