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Dodging the Flu - are Vaccines the Best Way?


Dodging the Flu -
are Vaccines the Best Way?

By Richard Fleming, MD

If I am not mistaken, it has been getting colder outside lately. Strangely, it has also been raining. While I am no weather forecaster, it seems winter may be looming on the near horizon. Winter brings a variety of nice developments, including holidays and family get-togethers. It also carries in a variety of problems, such as colds, coughs, and the flu.

What exactly is the flu? Its full name is influenza, but most people use its shorter nickname. The flu is an infection caused by a virus. It leads to fevers, aches and pains, headaches, tiredness, and often a dry cough or a runny nose. The symptoms can last up to a week or two. The flu is more common during the winter months, when people tend to spend more time indoors. The virus spreads from one person to another by tiny droplets.

If present in the air, like after a cough or a sneeze, someone can breathe in the droplet and get the virus that way. If present on a hard surface, like a doorknob or kitchenware which has been touched by someone who has the flu, a person can get the virus on their fingers. If the virus is on our hands and we touch our face, and this happens all the time, we can get infected. 

One thing that makes the flu so contagious is that people who are infected with the flu virus start shedding the virus one or two days before they get sick. In other words, a friend, family member, or some stranger shopping next to you in the store, can look and feel perfectly normal, but they might be spreading the virus around to people nearby. 

For most people, influenza is uncomfortable and a nuisance. But for some people, the flu can be very serious. Every year, 5,000-10,000 people in the U.S. die from the flu. Some years are much worse. Also, tens of thousands of people have to be hospitalized each winter to treat the infection or its complications. The people who have a harder time with the flu are the very young, the very old, and people with serious medical problems. For these people, influenza can be deadly.

Once flu sweeps in to a community, it is impossible to completely avoid the virus. But the risk of getting infected can be reduced. Avoiding people who have the flu is a good idea. Washing one’s hands frequently can reduce the chance of picking it up.

But the best way to dodge the flu is to get the flu vaccine. Flu vaccines are recommended for everyone six months of age and older once a year. The most common way to get vaccinated is to get a flu shot. There are different formulations of flu shots, and the best way to find out which one is best for you is to talk with your primary care clinician. There is also a nose spray form which can be used for people between ages 2 and 49.

Some people are worried about flu vaccines. They feel that getting the flu shot can give them the flu. As a former president once said, “Let me perfectly clear. You will not get the flu from that flu shot.” Well, the first sentence is accurate, but I edited the second sentence to be more appropriate for a family audience and for this article. Flu shots do occasionally make a person a little achy and a tiny bit feverish. But if a person gets the flu shortly after getting a flu shot, it means they had already been exposed to the flu and were going to get sick anyway. 

So, please get your flu vaccine. And get it soon. Flu season will start any week now. As our mothers taught us, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Besides protecting yourself from this nasty infection, you can help prevent your loved ones from getting it. If you have young children or elderly folks living with you, you may even save them from serious harm.


About Partnership HealthPlan of California (PHC)

PHC is a non-profit community based health care organization that contracts with the State to administer   Medi-Cal benefits through local care providers, to ensure Medi-Cal recipients have access to comprehensive, cost-effective health care. First offering services in Solano County in 1994, PHC now provides quality health care to over 510,000 members in 14 Northern California counties - Del Norte, Humboldt, Lake, Lassen, Marin, Mendocino, Modoc, Napa, Shasta, Siskiyou, Solano, Sonoma, Trinity and Yolo.

Dr. Richard Fleming is a Regional Medical Director at Partnership HealthPlan of California (PHC).