Friday, December 15, 2006


Take matters into your own hands to prevent the flu

“How do I prevent myself and my children from getting flu? Should we be getting a flu shot?” These are common questions I am asked this time of year, when like clockwork the cold and flu season arrives.

The answer is there are things you can do to prevent the flu -- and the single best way to do it is to get vaccinated. There are two types of vaccines:

• The "flu shot" – containing killed virus that is given to people 6 months of age and older, and people with existing medical conditions or pregnant.
• The nasal spray vaccine – a weakened live virus vaccine that can be given to healthy people 5 years to 49 years of age who are not pregnant.
While October and November are the best times to get vaccinated, December or even later can still be beneficial since most flu activity occurs in January or later in most years. It takes about two weeks for the protective antibodies to develop after the vaccination.

Who should get vaccinated?
In general anyone who wants to reduce their chances of getting the flu can get vaccinated. However the following are considered the high risk group as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

People at high risk for complications from flu are:

• Children aged 6 months to 5 years
• Pregnant women
• People 50 years of age and older
• People of any age with certain chronic medical conditions, and
• People who live in nursing homes and other long term care facilities
• People who live with or care for those at high risk for complications, including: household contacts of persons at high risk for complications from the flu (see above); household contacts and out of home caregivers of children less than 6 months of age (these children are too young to be vaccinated); and health care workers.

Tips to prevent the flu
Flu shots are important, but not the only way to avoid the flu. At this time of year, you want to keep going like the ‘Energizer Bunny’, and can’t afford to get sick. An ounce of prevention can go long way:

• Avoid close contact with people who are sick, keep your distance from others when you are sick
• Stay home from work, school and errands when you are sick
• Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing and sneezing
• Wash your hands often
• Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth
• Get plenty of sleep, be physically active, manage your stress, drink plenty of fluids and eat healthy food

If you get the flu
Flu (influenza) is a viral infection of the upper airways (i.e. nose, throat) and lungs. A sudden onset of fever, runny/stuffy nose, sore-throat, cough, generalized aches and pains, and extreme fatigue are typical symptoms. Among children it can commonly lead to nausea, and vomiting and other complications such as dehydration.
For a majority of healthy people, the illness lasts usually for 3-7 days, although cough and general aches and pains can last for more than two weeks. Obviously it is far more dangerous in certain populations, such as young children, elderly and persons suffering from other illnesses like asthma, diabetes, and heart disease.

How serious is flu?
In the United States, each year on average 5-20% of the population gets the flu of which about 200,000 people are hospitalized from flu complications and about 36,000 people die. Complications of flu include pneumonia, ear infections, and sinus infections, all of which can worsen existing heart conditions or asthma or diabetes.
Generally flu season starts in November and lasts till March but may start as early as October and may last as late as May. Flu spreads from person to person through coughing or sneezing. Most people can pass on the flu from the day before their symptoms appear until five days after becoming sick.

Now that you learned a little bit about flu, call your doctor or local healthcare facility (such as the Backus Health Centers in Gales Ferry, Montville and Colchester), and get a flu shot.

Enjoy your good health and happy holidays.

Ravi Prakash, MD, is Chief of Pediatrics at Backus Hospital, with a private pediatric office in Norwich. This column should not replace advice or instruction from your personal physician. E-mail Dr. Prakash and all of the Healthy Living columnists at

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