Sunday, February 4, 2018

Is the flu as scary as media stories make it out to be?

The seasonal flu, influenza, is front page news across North America. Every day we are reading or hearing of someone who has died - and often it is someone young and healthy, the last person you would expect to die from the flu.

So is the flu as scary as the media is making it out to be? Yes - and no.

Millions of people around the world get the flu. They can be very sick for a few days with body soreness and muscle aches, terrible cough, fever, and more. But after a few days of rest and rehydration, they start to recover and gradually return to their daily activities. Some people may feel fatigued or have a lasting, nagging cough for weeks after the flu, but for the most part, they get better and the flu becomes part of the past.

But some people who get the flu get seriously ill. Some die. Some survive, but leave the hospital weeks and months later, with amputations or other life changing complications. And, because we can't tell ahead of time who may become so sick, this is why the flu is scary. I know of a woman who is 94 and was hospitalized last week with pneumonia following the flu, and she is now fine. Usually, it is seniors or those with chronic diseases who are the most likely to become severely ill from the flu. Yet this year, we have also heard of young children and young adults who were perfectly healthy before they got the flu, and they died.

The most common path to severe illness from the flu is pneumonia. Because influenza is a respiratory illness, it can lead to pneumonia. (There is no such thing as a gastro flu or a tummy flu.) Pneumonia can be very serious and can cause you to develop sepsis, your body's reaction to an infection. This is what can lead to death.

Every year, researchers try to come up with a vaccine for the seasonal flu. Some years, it's fairly effective. Other years, it's barely effective. And the researchers and pharma companies get a lot of flak for this. What many people don't realize is that we can't know 100% what flu virus is going to be the one to hit the hardest from year to year, so the scientists are working on an educated guess. The seasonal flu viruses change and mutate, and because it can take months to produce a vaccine, what may have been effective against a specific virus one month, may no longer be effective months later because the virus mutated and changed.

This begs the question - why bother with a flu vaccine at all then? Because it is somewhat effective. The flu vaccine can help prevent the flu for some people. It can help lessen the severity of the illness in others. But it can't claim to protect you completely - it can only be used as one tool in a toolkit for flu prevention. Compare it to wearing a seat belt. The seat belt helps reduce your risk of injury or death in a car accident - but it can't guarantee it. (When seat belt laws came into force where I live, I knew a woman who would pretend to wear the seat belt, just loop it over her shoulder, because she said that no law would tell her that she should wear her seat belt. Now, 30+ years later, you should see how fanatical she is about making sure her grandchildren are securely fastened in the car.) We know that seat belts save lives. We also know that if you do have the flu vaccine, you've decreased your risk of getting sick.

There are still people who believe that the flu vaccine can make you sick with the flu. It can't. As has been said over and over again, it doesn't contain a live virus, and you need a live virus to cause illness. That's not to say that some people don't get sick after they've been vaccinated. Some people are exposed to the flu before they have their injection - it takes up to two weeks for the vaccination to work. So if you're exposed to the flu just before or just after you have your vaccination, you're still going to get it. Other people report feeling fatigued, feverish, not well overall after getting their vaccine. This isn't the flu, but likely their body's way of coping with a vaccination. It's not comfortable and it would be best not to be sick at all, but it's not the flu.

I've read people saying that more people are dying now of the flu than before precisely because of the vaccines. They say that no one died of the flu before that. To those people, I say Google the Spanish flu. I am pretty sure we didn't have vaccinations back then yet (yes, that is sarcasm). Then Google other flu epidemics. There are others that occurred before we had seasonal flu vaccines.

How can you prevent getting or giving the flu? 

You can reduce your risk by washing your hands frequently. The flu virus can live on solid surfaces like door handles, bank machines, even store counters, for days. Wash your hands as soon as you get home or arrive at work. Clean your hands if you've been out shopping or handling things that others may have. Try to avoid touching your face, especially your hands, nose, and eyes, before you've washed your hands. Cleaning your hands will also reduce the risk of you spreading the virus if you have the flu but don't know it yet.

Get vaccinated. There's still time. Flu season can run up to the end of April, so some protection is still possible. If you don't want to get vaccinated, there's nothing I can say that will convince you, but if you do want to get the vaccine, you still can.

Stay home if you're sick. I know it's not easy. We all have bills to pay and responsibilities to uphold. But going out sick will just make more people sick. And although the chances are very likely that you'll get better and go on, someone else who gets the virus from you may not be so lucky.

Sneeze or cough into your sleeve. Your clothes are washable and less likely to come into contact with a surface that someone else will touch.

What should you do if you get the flu?

Rather than repeating what has already been written, you can go to this information I wrote for Sepsis Alliance: Sepsis and Influenza. There, you'll find not only more information on the flu itself, but the signs and symptoms, as well as when to see a doctor.

Good luck during this flu season. It's a bad one.

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