We are in the heart of flu season which begins in October and ends somewhere late in the Spring. Outbreak of the flu can be highly unpredictable from season to season which makes it difficult to totally prevent. As always, it is important to check with your own health care provider to see if you personally can benefit from the flu vaccine as well as which formulation to choose. Influenza or the flu is prevalent in the United States during the fall- spring months, all the way through May and more critical when you have a chronic disease such as diabetes, obstructive lung disease, asthma, hypertension or heart disease. The flu can worsen your risk of bronchitis, pneumonia, respiratory failure and blood infections. Influenza may lead to diarrhea and seizures especially in children and seniors over 65. People who have a weakened immune system including those with HIV, cancer, Hepatitis C, pregnant women, people living in nursing home facilities and those who are morbidly obese have a higher chance of developing a more severe case with multiple complications. Influenza may cause severe dehydration due to vomiting, fever and diarrhea and make existing heart failure worse. Large blood sugar swings for those with diabetes are also common due to dehydration from the flu. According to the CDC, “flu shots save lives and reduce the risk of hospitalization of pneumonia by 50%. The flu is responsible for thousands of deaths a year”. Manufacturers have indicated that they expect to provide 164-173 million shots and nasal mist versions for the 2015-2016 season.
Let’s review some flu facts.
- What is the flu and what are the usual symptoms? The flu is an infection with one of the flu strains of the influenza virus. The symptoms may include a sore throat, muscle aches, congestion, chills, exhaustion, fever of 100 or higher, headache, runny or stuffed nose, coughing and possible nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
- What can the flu vaccine do? The flu vaccine, even though not 100% effective for every strain, can reduce your chance of getting the flu, help you have a less severe case if you get the flu or reduce the ability to spread the flu to other people in your family, office, school or hospital setting. Flu vaccines are available for infants over six months to the elderly. Those working in the health care field should get the flu vaccine to prevent the spread of the virus for patients whose systems are compromised and need to be protected.
- What are the latest types of flu products? This year Trivalent (3 strain) or Quadrivalent (4 strain) flu shots are being offered. There is a high dose flu shot called Fluzone specifically given to those over 65. Nasal flu mist is available in Trivalent and Quadrivalent which are recommended for those ages 2-49. The flu mist is sprayed directly into the nose which makes antibodies; these antibodies enter the cells and then travel into the blood stream. Pregnant women, those who have a weakened immune system and children on long term aspirin use should not take the flu mist.
- What can boost your flu shot response? Doing a 25-minute arm workout including biceps curls and arm elevations/rotations 6 hours prior to the shot may bring more blood to the injection site which increases antibody production for up to 5 months. This was reported in The Journal of Brain, Behavior and Immunity. According to a study done at Iowa State University “walking an hour after taking the flu shot for 90 minutes of medium level aerobics can increase antibody response up to 100%”.
- Can the flu shot give me the flu? The flu shot takes 2 weeks to develop protection so it doesn’t defend you in that initial 2-week time frame. Flu viruses change yearly and although 3-4 strains are targeted each year, it may not provide full protection from a different non-targeted flu strain. Although it may not prevent it, it will lessen the ill effects of any other flu strain. Flu vaccines do not contain a live virus which means it will not cause the flu.
- Who should not take the flu vaccine? Do not take a flu vaccine when you are presently sick with a cold or virus. Skip the flu shot if you have an active respiratory problem; wait until you have recovered and consult with your physician before taking the shot. Do not take a flu shot if you are allergic to eggs (helps bind the ingredients) or have had a previous allergic reaction. Do not have a flu shot if you do not want exposure or if you are allergic to a mercury based preservative called thimerosal. There are vaccine preparations that do not contain this preservative but you must request it. Forget a flu vaccine if you have or had Guillain-Barre Syndrome known as GBS (the immune system attacks the nerves).
- What are possible reactions to the flu shot? Local site irritation is the most common problem including arm soreness and redness that usually disappears in 48 hours. Some individuals get mild muscle aches, sniffles and a low grade (under 100 degree) fever. Others may develop hoarseness, red, itchy eyes, fatigue, itching at the injection site and a mild headache. These usually dissipate within 48 hours. Anyone given medication can develop a severe reaction and according to government data “a severe reaction takes place in one in a million doses of the vaccine”. It usually occurs within a few minutes to a few hours after the vaccine is given and the symptoms could include difficulty breathing, hives, dizziness, a fast heart beat, facial swelling, strange behavior or a high fever. If you feel you are having a severe reaction call 911. Vaccine safety is constantly being monitored. Visit www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety or call 1-800-338-2382 if you want more details. There is a National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program for those injured by a health vaccine.
- Where can I get the flu vaccine? Most health insurance plans including Medicare cover the cost of the flu shot. You can get the vaccine at your physician’s office, local pharmacy chains, and big box stores including Target and Wal-Mart as well as supermarkets that have in–house pharmacies such as Publix. Some work places, schools, and community centers as well as local health departments offer the shots at reduced prices for those who are not covered.
- Can I prevent the flu? The most reliable way to prevent the flu is with frequent hand washing using soap and water or alcohol gel for at least 20 seconds. Take note that alcohol gels may affect your blood sugar readings. Hospitals are thinking of investing in “electronic hand hygiene compliance protocols” for employees using sensors or name tags since hand washing is critical in keeping down rates of viruses, bacteria and other infections.
- Open the window. Studies show that fresh air keeps germ particles on the move as compared to a stuffy room with little or no circulation. Stop touching your eyes, nose and lips which are easy ways to transmit viruses. Avoid shaking hands during flu season in a polite manner. Eat foods that can boost your immune system such as shitake mushrooms, yogurt with live cultures, fermented foods including kefir, kimchi or sauerkraut. Take a probiotic supplement to boost GI wellness which will help your entire immune system. Get a good night of sleep and don’t smoke. Turn away from someone who is sneezing if they don’t do it first. Germs from sneezing can travel up to 20 feet. If you sneeze, sneeze into your armpit or elbow, not directly into the air. If you use a tissue, dispose of it immediately and wash your hands. Use a Neti- pot or saline nasal spray to rinse out your nose as this helps clear out viral particles which lodge in your nose during the day. Purchase an air filter which can help purify the room air. Samsung makes “Virus Zero” featuring SPI technology which “neutralizes 99.7% of viruses, bacteria odors and mold in the air around you”.
- What if I get the flu? Antiviral drugs (3 are FDA approved) including Tamiflu need to be taken within 48 hours of initial symptoms. Many times before writing a prescription, a physician will do a nasal swab to confirm the diagnosis. Drink warm liquids such as tea or chicken soup to help open up your lungs from the steam as well as prevent dehydration. Liquids also thin out mucus which helps you breathe easier. Drinking 2 liters of fluid a day while sick is often suggested unless you are on a fluid restriction plan. Use a humidifier to put moisture back into the room air. Indoor heat and dryness can aggravate a sore throat. Eating spicy foods including chili peppers can help clear up congestion temporarily; there are OTC nasal sprays which contain capsaicin derived from peppers which may also decrease congestion. Skip your work outs until you are feeling better. Eat a sugar-free Popsicle which may numb your throat for a while. You can freeze Crystal Light lemonade in ice cube trays and lick them to relieve a dry throat and reduce swelling. Inhale essential oils including eucalyptus oil added to boiling water to help open up airways similar to rubbing Vicks on your chest. Sleep sitting at a 45 degree angle since you will collect more mucus when you lie down. It also helps move blood from the head which may reduce inflammation in the nose and sinuses. Try OTC nasal strips which may increase your air flow.
Getting the flu can make you feel miserable and helpless along with raising your blood sugars. Try these tips for a perfect flu–less season!
NOTE: Consult your Doctor first to make sure my recommendations fit your special health needs.
She is a member of the American Diabetes Association as well as the South Florida Association of Diabetes Educators. She worked with the education department of NBMC to help educate the hospital's in-patient nurses about diabetes. She practices a healthy lifestyle and has worked as a personal fitness trainer in the past.
She was one of the initiators of the North Broward Diabetes Center (NBMC) which started in 1990 and was one of the first American Diabetes Association (ADA) certified programs in Broward County, Florida for nearly two decades. Robbie has educated patients to care for themselves and has counseled them on healthy eating, heart disease, high lipids, use of glucometers, insulin and many other aspects of diabetes care. The NBMC Diabetes Center received the Valor Award from the American Diabetes Center for excellent care to their patients. Robbie has volunteered over the years as leader of many diabetes support groups.