Flu: Easy to catch, tough to lose



It's the time of year to chose between a brief sting and weeks of agonizing discomfort. It's the scenario millions around the world face during the months leading up to winter -- take the shot or suffer the consequences.

A yearly flu shot is a useful way to try and avoid the perennial pain that is influenza. With flu season steadily approaching, fall is the time of the year to prepare with a vaccination shot.

The peak time for flu season is January through March, which is why the ideal time for flu vaccinations is between the end of September and the end of November, said Curtis Allen, a spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta who specializes in the flu.

Flu shots take about two weeks before they become effective and last for about six months.

It's easy to catch. It's not so easy to get over.

"Flu is a respiratory illness," said Allen. "It's passed along in respiratory droplets spread through coughing and sneezing. If someone sneezes in an elevator or airplane, everybody is exposed. It's amazing how the droplets spread.

"The virus can be spread when someone touches something that bears the respiratory droplets, like a telephone."

The flu, in a sense, is a train wreck of an illness. Unlike the common cold, the flu hits abruptly. And it hits much harder. It can come and go in a matter of days, or linger on for weeks. A high fever, headache, cough, sore throat and severe muscle aches are indicators of influenza.

"You usually start getting sick from one to four days after the virus is in your system," Allen said. "It gets into your system and goes through unimpeded unless you're vaccinated. Your body recognizes the virus, mounts a defense and that's when you start getting symptoms. You go into this battle for a few days, and in most people the defense, the immune system, wins."

Other than getting vaccinated, there's very little one can do to prepare for the flu.

"It typically comes on very rapidly," Allen said "You'll feel fine then two hours later you'll feel sick as a dog. You really won't feel like doing anything for a couple days."

Some people might view influenza as something not so serious. However, many complications can surface from catching the flu. Complications such as heart conditions, lung conditions, asthma, emphysema, diabetes and a bevy of others can arise. People with chronic illness and immune system disorders are especially at risk for complications.That's why Allen said coming down with the flu shouldn't be taken lightly.

"Influenza is a pretty nasty disease," Allen said. "People will go a week in bed, be pretty sick and miserable. It's a pretty serious disease."

Simply put, influenza makes your life miserable. It attacks the respiratory system, targeting your lungs, nose and throat.

There's no dodging it, either.Although a flu shot every year can help reduce the risk of catching the flu, it's not a cure-all. And for some, the flu is more than a treat-and-forget condition. About 36,000 Americans die each year from complications resulting from the flu and another 200,000 are hospitalized, according to the Mayo Clinic.Those numbers add up. When nearly a quarter million people are hospitalized, a lot of work will not be done. Between 5 and 20 percent of the U.S. population will be infected with the flu each year.

"Influenza is totally unpredictable," Allen said. "You don't know how severe the season will be."

According to the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza, flu season is responsible for more than $10 billion in lost productivity and total cost. The CDC found influenza vaccinations can help reduce lost workdays due to the flu by 45 percent. Another CDC study estimated the cost for a single bout of influenza in a healthy person between the ages 18 and 64 to run at about $4,500.

When you figure up to 20 percent of the population can be infected in a heavy year, it's no wonder that flu shots are all the rage in the fall. The lost workdays and productivity quickly add up, which is why some businesses are starting to take a progressive step to protect their employees.

Dr. Aaron Glatt, an infectious disease specialist with New Island Hospital in New York, said many companies are now offering free flu shots to their employees. While this has been a steady practice in the health care industry for some time, other companies are following suit in order to cut back on sick days in their offices.

"Companies find it very cost effective and they'll have less absentees," Glatt said. "It will improve their productivity to offer workers free flu vaccines."


Aside from a yearly vaccine, there's not much you can do to shield yourself from influenza's strike. Of course, you can always follow the "mother rules" -- cover your mouth while you cough, drink plenty of fluids, wash your hands, and don't go out if you are sick.

No one has influenza immunity, either, although some groups of people are more susceptible to the viral infection. People with weak immune systems or a history of chronic illnesses are more likely to contract it. Also, older adults and young children have a higher risk of catching the flu and developing more serious complications. Those are the groups that are highly encouraged to receive a flu shot, although it's never a bad idea to get the shot even if you are middle-aged and healthy.

"If you're sick, stay at home," Allen said.

Don't go out into the community where you can expose others to the flu. You could give it to an elderly person who can't fight it, and it could be fatal.

"If you've got little kids and they're sick, don't take them to grandma and grandpa until they're over it," Glatt said. "Keep them at home."

Some over-the-counter medicines advertise that they can help prevent you from catching the flu. But Glatt said those medications aren't worth the trip or the money.

"People spend all this money on ineffective medicine," Glatt said. "The flu shot is something like four dollars."

Prescription antivirals, such as Tamiflu and Relenza, can aid in recovery time and help boost the immune system. Treatment must be started within 48 hours for them to be effective, Allen said.

If a family member comes down with the flu, other members of the family may want to request a prescription for an antiviral.

When treating a fever during a flu bout, it's important to use something with acetaminophen -- such as Tylenol -- instead of an aspirin. Reye's syndrome, a rare but often fatal condition, can occur in children and teenagers who have the flu and are given aspirin.

Some people may cite the needle itself as a reason for not getting vaccinated. Given the high cost of influenza and the small size of the needle, Glatt said needle anxiety isn't worth it.

"'Some people are afraid of needles - which is why they have a (flu vaccination) nasal spray," Glatt said. "But the flu shot is very simple. It's a very small needle."

And this year, there will be a lot of those small needles circulating doctor's offices. With an abundance of vaccinations available this year and a roughly 70 percent success rate for the shots, there's no reason to be left in the cold. According to the CDC website, "the 2010-2011 flu vaccine protects against an influenza A H3N2 virus, an influenza B virus and the 2009 H1N1 virus that caused so much illness last season."

"The best way to avoid the flu is to simply get the vaccine," Glatt said. "It's not perfect but it's quite good. There's absolutely no reason not to."

People who resist getting the flu shot for themselves may want to consider the health of others.

"When we immunize a population, it's to hopefully achieve what's called herd immunity," Allen said. "If we get enough people immunized, then those who are unable to get immunized will probably not get infected."