’Tis the Season … flu season that is …

Published 10:54 pm Wednesday, December 19, 2012


By Dr. Fred Teixeira

Vidant Internal Medicine-Washington

As Cindy had done for years she was getting the house ready for New Year’s Eve.
It was her responsibility to throw the annual party for the family, and she was just about ready. Her sister and her new 3-month-old baby were coming, as was her father-in-law who had severe lung disease and was on oxygen.
The oxygen tank always had made Cindy nervous as she liked to keep the fireplace going during the party and she was afraid the tank might explode. She had no idea that this was the last year she would have to worry about the oxygen tank, because in three weeks her father-in-law would be dead, and her baby niece would be in the hospital on a ventilator struggling for her life.
In just a few short hours Cindy would start to feel the tell-tale signs of influenza. She would develop a high fever and severe body aches followed by a sore throat and cough. She would comment to her husband the following day, that “I feel like I have to get better to die.”
At that point she already was regretting her decision not to get the flu shot when it was offered at work. Of course, she would regret that decision even more bitterly when the events that followed would play out in her family.
The above vignette, while fortunately relatively rare, illustrates several important points concerning the annual influenza epidemic. First is that anyone, including otherwise healthy people such as Cindy, can contract influenza. Secondly, that people may be able to transmit the influenza virus to others for up to 24 hours prior to the start of symptoms. Children may be able to transmit influenza for up to a week prior to symptoms. Thirdly, that people with underlying illnesses such as Cindy’s father-in-law, can die from the influenza infection itself or from other illnesses that occur because of the weakened state of the immune system caused by influenza. And lastly, that getting the influenza vaccine, or flu vaccine as it is commonly called, is not only important for you, but also for others around you.
On average, according to the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, 36,000 people in the U.S. die of influenza. However, some years when the influenza virus is particularly bad, that number can almost double.
Also, there are over a quarter of a million hospitalizations due to flu in the U.S. each year. Most of these people are either very young, older than 65 years of age, or have an underlying chronic illness. In certain years, though, even healthy young adults can die of flu.
As is also illustrated above, influenza, especially in adults often “hits you like a ton of bricks.” Abrupt onset of high fever, malaise, severe muscle aches, headache, sore throat and a dry cough are hallmarks of the disease.
Children may experience similar symptoms as well as nausea, vomiting, and middle ear infections. However, the amount, type and severity of symptoms are not enough to diagnose influenza accurately as many other illnesses can present in a similar way.
Therefore, if you think you may have influenza or “the flu,” seek medical help right away. Your health care provider can perform an exam and if appropriate a lab test that can accurately diagnose influenza.
Once influenza is diagnosed accurately, anti-flu medications can be taken that can decrease the length and severity of the illness. Also, these same medications can be given to close contacts if appropriate and actually prevent the onset of infection in others.
In our area influenza usually peaks in February, but may occur at any time of the year. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, tracks the flu throughout the year and gives frequent reports of outbreaks.
They also, along with several other agencies worldwide, track how the influenza virus changes each year. It is because of these changes in the virus, that a different vaccine is given every year, and why we as physicians recommend people get the vaccine yearly.
The best way to avoid getting this nasty infection is to get vaccinated. The vaccine is safe and effective. There are only extremely rare complications, most of them minor. To put it another way, you’re more likely to be struck by lightning on your way to getting the vaccine than to get a serious complication from it.
Fortunately, this year it is also widely available and relatively cheap. Go to flu.gov for more info about the vaccine and detailed info about flu in general.
One can get vaccinated at the health department, most doctors’ offices as well as many pharmacies. Each time the vaccine is given your health care provider or pharmacist will ask you several questions to make sure the vaccine is right for you.
The vast majority of people should get vaccinated every year. However, if you have an egg allergy you have probably heard that you should not get the vaccine as it is processed using eggs. This is not always true. Many people with egg allergies can get the vaccine. So if you’ve avoided vaccination in the past ask your doctor if you might now be able to get it. This is especially important if you have an underlying chronic illness.
Remember, the flu is not just a bad cold. As I tell my patients, the flu is to a cold like Godzilla is to a lizard. If you think you may have the flu get tested, treatment is available. Better still though is to heed the old adage — An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Don’t be a wimp, get vaccinated every year, and protect yourself and the people you love.
By the way, Cindy’s niece was fine. Cindy also continues to hold the New Year’s Eve party each year, but only vaccinated family members are allowed to attend.