As flu season peaks, the shot is the best way to defend against influenza
Thanks in part to an early-winter cold snap that saw temperatures plummeting into the single digits and people huddling close indoors for warmth, the flu season is seeing an early peak that is likely to extend into April. And while there’s no cause to panic over sensational headlines warning of a “widespread,” potentially deadly outbreak, there is a need to take precautions to stay healthy.
“There’s so much attention on it, but it’s not a new problem,” Dr. Virginia Lemay, Pharm.D., clinical associate professor in the URI College of Pharmacy, said of recent news reports. “There are deaths every year, but once the flu season is in its peak, that’s when people pay more attention to it.”
That peak came early this year as cold weather sent more people indoors, in closer quarters with others, allowing the communicable disease to thrive. State departments of health, including Rhode Island’s, have issued public warnings over the “significant increase” in the virus in early January, about a month sooner than average. The early peak — while likely extending the worst of the flu season — has the advantage of focusing people on preventative measures.
“For most people, the flu is just the flu. You might feel achy from head to toe, but you’ll feel better within a week,” Lemay said. “But for the very old, the very young, or anyone otherwise ill, it can be much more serious. The healthier the general population can keep themselves, the better we can protect the vulnerable. That’s why it’s so important for everyone to get a flu shot.”
The flu vaccine is the best protection people have against influenza. Contrary to some beliefs, the flu shot cannot cause a recipient to get the flu. And while it is not 100 percent effective, the vaccine protects against most flu strains and helps one’s immune system better fight the virus if it does take hold.
The flu shot is not just for those traditionally at risk. Even young, healthy individuals with no high-risk factors like asthma, diabetes, heart disease or a compromised immune system must be vaccinated not just for their own health, but also to prevent spreading the virus to others. That’s a particular concern on a college campus where students live in close proximity. And it’s not too late to protect yourself. With nearly three months to go in the flu season, health experts are urging anyone who has not yet been vaccinated to do so as soon as possible.
“It’s the best defense we have. Not only will it help prevent the flu, it’ll help the body respond to it better,” Lemay said. “There is no shortage of flu shots; all community pharmacists may immunize at any time, day or night.”
Patients with a high risk factor who contract the flu should see their doctor right away to get anti-viral medication like Tamiflu, Lemay said. Traditional antibiotics combat bacteria and do nothing against viruses such as the flu. Those without risk factors can also take anti-virals, but, like all medicines, they come with side effects and are effective only within the first 48 hours of contracting the flu, said Lemay, who advised calling your doctor rather than going to a hospital emergency room.
“It is very contagious; you can put other people in the ER at risk of getting it,” Lemay said. “If you have a high risk factor, you need to go to the doctor right away. Otherwise, it’s usually best to stay home, take fever reducers, stay hydrated and get lots of sleep.”