The first and most important step in avoiding the flu this year is to get an influenza vaccination.

Influenza is an acute viral respiratory disease that affects persons of all ages and is associated with millions of medical visits, hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations, and thousands of deaths during annual winter epidemics with variable severity from year to year. Elderly persons are at particularly high risk for hospitalization and even death. The primary method of prevention is the annual seasonal influenza vaccine.

It was just 10 years ago in 2009 that we experienced a severe influenza called “Swine flu” or H1N1. It was a devastating influenza, with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimating “151,700 to 575,400 deaths worldwide.” H1N1 also had a greater death rate for age groups 25-49 and 50-64 than in other years. It was an anxious influenza season for many, and the key method of prevention of the infection at that time, and now, is vaccination.

Most experts believe flu viruses spread mainly by droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby. Less often, a person might also get the flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth, eyes or possibly their nose.

When a person is exposed to the influenza virus, it can take 1-4 days before symptoms begin. The classic symptoms of seasonal influenza include fever/chills, cough, sore throat, runny/stuffy nose, muscle/body aches, headaches, fatigue, and some individuals may have vomiting and diarrhea (although this is more common in children). A person can be contagious even before developing symptoms. A healthy adult may be able to infect others beginning one day before their symptoms develop and up to 5-7 days after becoming sick.

Anyone can get the flu (even healthy people) and serious problems related to the flu can happen at any age. Groups at higher risk for developing medical complications related to seasonal influenza include: children younger than 5 (but especially children younger than 2 years old), adults 65 years of age and older, pregnant women (and women up to two weeks postpartum), and residents of nursing homes and other long-term-care facilities. Many other people are also at risk for influenza complications, including people with underlying lung disease (asthma and COPD), coronary heart disease/congestive heart disease, diabetes mellitus, kidney disorders, liver disorders, weakened immune systems and obesity.

There are many complications associated with the seasonal influenza, including bacterial pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections, dehydration and worsening of chronic medical conditions such as congestive heart failure, asthma or diabetes. Tragically, there are also many deaths associated with the seasonal influenza annually. One CDC study spanning 30 years (1976-2007) found an average of 3,349 to 48,614 deaths annually. Globally, there are reported between 250,000-500,000 deaths annually associated with the seasonal influenza. Some years, the seasonal influenza is more severe than others and this can be hard to predict, but the best way to aid in preventing these terrible outcomes is to get your seasonal influenza vaccine.

There are seasonal influenza vaccines available at many locations, including primary-care physicians, local pharmacies, urgent-care locations and Rutland Regional Medical Center. There are vaccines available for individuals from 6 months and older. There is also a vaccine that is a “high dose” targeted for individuals ages 65 and older.

The first and most important step in preventing seasonal influenza this year is to get an influenza vaccination. The CDC also recommends preventive actions (masking, covering coughs and sneezes and frequent handwashing) to help slow the spread of germs that cause respiratory (nose, throat, and lungs) illnesses like the flu.

So, go out and get your seasonal influenza vaccine today!

This week’s Health Talk was written by John Gavin Cotter MD, infectious disease specialist, Rutland Regional Medical Center, www.rrmc.org.

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