With summer winding down, everyone’s attention is turning toward activities of the fall season. As certain as the falling of the leaves is the outbreak of another round of influenza that could be largely prevented if more people took proper steps to protect themselves.
While current U.S. flu activity is low, some flu viruses do circulate during the summer, but most influenza activity usually doesn’t begin increasing until October.
But there are often exceptions. Like last year when the flu did not hit the people of Harlan County hard until much later in the season than usual.
The best way we have to prevent the flu every year is for people to get the flu shot early. Despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, many still resist doing so in the mistaken belief the shot will make them sick.
Flu vaccine has not included live (but weakened) strains of the virus for many, many years, but people still cling to the belief in stories told by others of how they got sick only a few days after getting the shot.
Everyone reacts differently to inoculations just as they do to any other medication. Often people misread their symptoms and perceive flu when what they actually have is simply a strain of common cold or even an allergy.
The flu takes a week or two to grow from initial infection into a full-blown illness. The vaccine takes two to three weeks before it becomes an effective defense against infection. For those few who may develop the flu after receiving the vaccine, it was most likely because they had already been infected when the shot was given. They might also have been infected by a strain of the flu virus that was not included in the vaccine’s formula.
Because influenza can mutate rapidly, occasionally the vaccine can be ineffective against strains that develop. This is especially true when infection occurs late in the season.
The federal agency responsible for tracking influenza outbreaks, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, recommends a yearly flu vaccine for everyone six months and older by the end of October, if possible.
The single best way to protect against the flu is to get a flu vaccine each year, especially for those people at high risk for developing serious complications from flu.
Flu vaccinations are proven to reduce flu illnesses and prevent flu-related hospitalizations. Flu vaccines have now been updated for the 2016-2017 season and many health professionals are already providing them to their patients and the public.
CDC also recommends that patients suspected of having influenza that are at high risk of flu complications or are very sick with flu-like illness should receive prompt treatment with influenza antiviral drugs without waiting for confirmatory testing.
There are also some “everyday” preventive actions you can take to stop the spread of flu germs (along with all the others):
• Try to avoid close contact with sick people.
• If you are sick with flu-like illness, CDC recommends that you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone except to get medical care or for other necessities. Your fever should be gone without the use of a fever-reducing medicine.
• While sick, limit contact with others as much as possible to keep from infecting them.
• Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.
• Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.
• Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Germs enter the body and spread quickly this way.
Also, antiviral medications, which can treat flu illness, may be used in certain circumstances to prevent the flu. Although some people tend to believe in them, there is no scientific evidence that any herbal, homeopathic or other folk remedies have any benefit against influenza.
It is important to remember to keep household surfaces clean because studies have shown that human influenza viruses generally can survive on things like counters and doorknobs from between two to eight hours.
Influenza viruses can be destroyed by heat (167-212°F or 75-100°C), so boiling water can be used for certain items that can survive the immersion for five minutes.
In addition, several chemical germicides, including chlorine, hydrogen peroxide, detergents (soap), iodophors (iodine-based antiseptics) and alcohols are effective against influenza viruses if used in proper concentrations for a sufficient length of time. For example, alcohol-based hand rubs can be used in the absence of soap and water for hand washing.
Influenza viruses on the surface of objects also can be killed by ultraviolet C (UV-C) radiation (at a wavelength of 200–270 nm; e.g., 254 nm). UV-C may be provided by exposure to direct sunlight or light from a mobile UV-C device. However, to date there are no published studies that demonstrate reduced transmission of influenza viruses by using UV-C devices in household settings.
If soap and water are not available and alcohol-based products are not allowed, other hand sanitizers that do not contain alcohol may be useful. Much more information is available from the CDC website (www.cdc.gov/flu) and we will be discussing these tips and other strategies to help you prepare for flu season at this Friday’s Lunch & Learn program at the hospital’s One West Conference Room beginning at noon.
Connie Maggard, RN, is the infection control coordinator at Harlan ARH Hospital.