It’s that time of year again: flu season. Cases of influenza usually spike from December through the spring when many people crowd onto airplanes for holiday travel, or spend more time indoors due to cooler, rainy weather.
Unfortunately, this year’s flu season appears to be particularly bad so far. A nasty strain of influenza A (H3N2) is causing more severe symptoms than normal at a local, national and even global level.
Although most people who catch the flu spend a few days in bed nursing a fever, body aches, chills, headaches, a sore throat and cough, flu has the potential to be dangerous and sometimes even deadly.
Young children, older adults and people with compromised immune systems are at a higher risk of developing serious complications from the flu.
What can you do to stay healthy? In addition to taking basic precautions like washing your hands frequently, avoiding touching your face or eyes, eating and sleeping well and moderating stress, it’s very important to also get vaccinated. Here are a few reasons to prioritize getting your flu shot this season.
>> It’s (often) free, safe, and readily available. Kaiser Permanente members can visit any Kaiser medical office or clinic to receive a free vaccination. Many health providers, community organizations, pharmacies and even schools offer flu shots for free. Flu vaccines are safe for pregnant women, children and the elderly — in fact, it’s especially important that children, pregnant patients and the elderly protect themselves from illness.
>> It helps protect you and the people you care about. I hear a lot of people say, “But I never get sick. Why should I get the flu shot?” Based on what we’re seeing, many people who might not normally catch the flu could end up catching influenza during this year’s flu season. The flu shot will lessen the chances of you getting the flu. This is an especially important year to take advantage of that.
Getting vaccinated doesn’t just keep you healthy, it can help lessen the spread of flu to others in your home or community, some of whom may be less healthy than you are and less able to fight the flu if they do get infected.
Getting vaccinated might help protect someone you know and care about — or someone you don’t yet know — from getting very, very sick. We are all part of a community, and vaccination helps protect those around you in ways that aren’t always easy to see.
>> Even if you catch the flu, being vaccinated can help. Unfortunately, no flu vaccine is 100 percent effective against all flu viruses. Some individuals who get their flu shot, take good care of their general health and wash their hands frequently may still find themselves battling a case of influenza this season.
However, even if you do end up catching the flu, you’re much less likely to have a severe or deadly case than someone who wasn’t vaccinated at all. Getting vaccinated can still help you avoid some of the worst complications of influenza, and that can make a huge difference in your health.
I look at the issue this way: Seatbelts won’t protect you from all injuries in a car crash, but you’re much better off wearing your seatbelt than not doing so.
The same goes for the flu vaccine — getting vaccinated isn’t perfect protection, but it’s vastly better than not getting a flu shot at all.
Let’s get through this flu season safely together and enjoy this bright new year.
IF YOU GET SICK
If you do think you’ve caught the flu, follow these tips:
** Contact your doctor immediately, not after several days. Your physician may recommend antiviral drugs to treat the flu and to help prevent spreading it. These drugs help you most when they’re given early in a flu infection, so it’s best to speak with your doctor promptly.
** Stay home. Allow your body to recover and avoid spreading the virus to your co-workers.
** Rest and hydrate. Treat your symptoms with over-the-counter medications if necessary. Try to avoid contact with family members who are well.
** Watch yourself carefully. Flu can be a very serious infection even if you’re young and healthy, and it’s important to let your doctor know if you’re not turning the corner to wellness after several days.
Dr. Tarquin Collis is chief of infectious diseases and associate medical director of medical specialties at Kaiser Permanente Hawaii.