By Ruth Carrico, PhD, DNP, APRN, CIC
With the seasons changing, we begin thinking about holiday get-togethers with friends and family. Unfortunately, not all guests will be invited — and one of these is influenza, i.e., the flu. Each year, millions of people around the world will become ill with the flu. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that hundreds of thousands will become sick enough to be hospitalized, and tens of thousands will die. We often underestimate the impact the flu can have on our health, and it is important for each of us to have an action plan. We should all recognize how flu is transmitted, how we can catch it and how we can use that knowledge to prevent it.
Flu is a virus transmitted through breathing. If we are infected, each time we exhale, cough, sneeze — or even laugh or sing — we are exhaling virus into the air, and others who are close by can come into contact with those viruses and become infected. Touching surfaces where those viruses have landed leads to surface contamination. If someone touches that surface and then rubs their eyes or nose, they can also become infected.
Once we are infected, flu impacts our health in many ways. Sometimes we are mildly ill with the classic symptoms of fever, body aches, cough, sore throat and a runny nose. Researchers have estimated that up to half of us infected with flu have very mild symptoms — sometimes so mild we do not recognize that we are ill. Whether or not we have symptoms, we still have the virus in what we exhale and can transmit the virus to others. Some of us, especially young children, older adults and those with underlying health conditions such as diabetes, lung and heart problems, can become even more ill. Flu is more than just a respiratory infection — it takes advantage of underlying health conditions and can cause them to worsen. Research has linked influenza to heart attack, stroke and other health conditions. Even more concerning — about 100 children die almost every flu season from influenza, and some of these were healthy with no underlying health conditions.
There are several key steps you can take to help protect yourself, your family and your community from the flu.
- Get your flu shot — every year. This year’s vaccine is estimated to reduce your likelihood of illness from flu by more than 50%. No vaccine is 100% effective, but a flu shot is the best defense to prevent serious illness. Every person 6 months of age and older should be vaccinated each flu season, unless they have a contraindication. Flu season typically begins in early fall and lasts into the spring, with the highest rates of illness occurring at the end of the year and into January and February. All flu vaccines are made using the same basic recipe, but there are some that are manufactured for distinct patient populations. For example, there is a vaccine specifically for the older adult. Your nurse practitioner (NP) can provide you with more information about influenza vaccines. Keep in mind, a child receiving their first flu vaccine may need to have two doses — just for that first time.
- Do not go to work or school if you are sick. Once infected, you can transmit the virus to others the day before you develop symptoms. If others in your family or your social group are ill with flu and you have been in close contact with them, be alert to any change in how you feel. While staying home and away from others, be sure to drink fluids to prevent dehydration that occurs when you have a fever. Consider over-the-counter medication for fever and other symptoms you are having but be sure to talk about over-the-counter medication with your NP first to make sure the medication does not interact with other medication you are taking, or with any underlying health condition you may have.
- Call your NP if you develop flu symptoms. He or she may feel that a flu test is important for you. A flu test is a simple nose swab with results that may be quickly available. You also do not need to be tested for flu before your NP considers treatment. There are antiviral agents your NP can prescribe that can help shorten the duration of influenza illness and decrease the severity of disease. Antiviral agents may also help prevent illness in the event you were exposed to flu but must be started quickly — ideally within 48 hours of symptom onset. Make sure you have a plan for contacting your NP, even on weekends and holidays.
- Do not disregard influenza as a threat to your health or the health of your child or other family members. Even if you have had the flu, you should still be vaccinated. Each year several different types of flu circulate throughout our communities and around the world. The flu shot provides protection against four different types of flu, and just because you were infected with one type does not mean you cannot become ill again during that same flu season. Since flu continues to circulate during the fall and into the spring, it is not too late to be vaccinated. If the flu vaccine is available, do not hesitate to get vaccinated.
- Ask your NP what you may expect when coming in to get the flu vaccine. Your NP or other personnel in the office should provide you with information about the vaccine and what to anticipate after vaccination. Most flu vaccines are administered as an injection given in the muscle of the upper arm. Some patients can receive the flu vaccine as a nose spray, but both are effective. If you received your vaccine via injection, you may have a sore arm, and if you received the nose spray you may have a stuffy nose and headache. Both vaccine types may also result in a day or so of fatigue, or sometimes body aches. These are signs that your body is using the vaccine to produce antibodies to protect you. Side effects from flu vaccine are very rare. However, if you experience anything severe, make sure to call your NP.
Nurse practitioners are recognized by you, the public, as one of the most trusted professions. This is because we spend time getting to know you and your family, and we use that knowledge to provide you with health information, health promotion, disease intervention and treatment plans. Just as you trust us, we value each of you. If you have questions or concerns about flu, the vaccine, or antiviral pills, we are a phone call or email away. Let us help make this flu season — and the ones in the future — the safest for all of us.