This has been a particularly bad flu season, though it seems we may be at the peak and about to see a decrease in infections. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that flu season usually peaks between December and February, and having this season’s peak at the end of February means that it is still going strong. In fact, more than half of the country is still reporting high levels of activity. Experts predict that there are many more weeks of flu season to go, and it could last until mid-April.
Why are children especially vulnerable to the flu?
So far, 97 children have died of the flu this season, most of them unvaccinated. Children are more vulnerable to flu viruses because they have inexperienced immune systems that have not been exposed to many infections. Once the body has fought off a viral infection, it can recognize the virus more quickly when it is exposed the next time. Early, robust immune responses are the body’s best form of defense against disease. Vaccines are critical in helping to teach our immune systems to recognize foreign invaders. Even though vaccines may not confer 100% immunity, even partial recognition (or matching) may shorten the time it takes to mount an immune response, preventing the invaders from multiplying and spreading more broadly across body tissues.
When the viral load is extremely high, it can trigger massive, microscopic chemical releases that swell the lungs and make air exchange difficult. In some cases, bacteria in the respiratory tract overgrow and penetrate deeper into the lung tissue that is damaged by the virus, creating a second source of infection. In severe cases, air cannot get through the inflamed lungs and into the bloodstream, resulting in decreased oxygen levels and possible death.
What can you do to prevent the flu?
First of all, it is worthwhile to get the flu vaccine, even at this later date. Although experts estimate that it is about 34% effective at preventing the flu this year, it may also reduce the severity of the illness if you get it. Remember that it takes 10-14 days for the flu shot to become effective, so be extra careful about exposure to sick individuals while your body’s immune system is ramping up to recognize the viral invaders. You can get the flu in those first two weeks just as easily as if you hadn’t been vaccinated. (Some people who get the flu just after the vaccine incorrectly assume that they got it from the vaccine.)
Our main weapons (besides the vaccine) are, according to the CDC:
- Avoiding close contact. Avoid close contact with people who are sick. When you are sick, keep your distance from others to protect them from getting sick too.
- Staying home when you are sick. If possible, stay home from work, school, and errands when you are sick. This will help prevent spreading your illness to others.
- Covering your mouth and nose. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. It may prevent those around you from getting sick.
- Washing your hands. Washing your hands often will help protect you from germs. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.
- Avoiding touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs are often spread when a person touches something that is contaminated with germs and then touches his or her eyes, nose, or mouth.
- Disinfecting contaminated surfaces. Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces at home, work or school, especially when someone is ill.
- Keep your immune system strong. Get plenty of sleep, be physically active, manage your stress, drink plenty of fluids, and eat nutritious food.
If you do get the flu, are there medicines to make it go away faster?
Yes, there are are three FDA-approved, anti-viral medications that can reduce the severity of the flu and reduce it’s duration by a day or two.
- oseltamivir (available as a generic version or under the trade name Tamiflu®),
- zanamivir (trade name Relenza®), and
- peramivir (trade name Rapivab®).
If you are in a “high risk group” for flu complications, you should see your doctor about anti-viral medications (they are only available by prescription). But hurry, these medications only help if you take them within 48 hours of symptom onset.
Who is at high risk for flu complications?
- Children younger than 2 and adults over 65
- Pregnant women
- Nursing home residents
- Native Americans
- Those with medical conditions that put them at higher risk for flu complications (including heart disease, lung disease, asthma, and a long list of others.)
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