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California Area Office logoCalifornia Area Office

Cold & Flu Season

Image of Margo KerriganMargo Kerrigan, M.P.H., Area Director
Indian Health Service California Area Office

October 2006 - Cold and flu season is upon us once again. The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by viruses. It can be mild or severe, and in some cases, lead to serious complications or even death. For this reason, it is very important to protect yourself from contracting the flu, and if you get sick, prevent spreading the illness to others.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 5%-20% of Americans come down with the flu during each flu season, which usually lasts from November to March. Children are 2-3 times more likely than adults to contract the flu, and children frequently spread the virus to others. Flu viruses spread mainly from person to person through coughing or sneezing. People can also catch the flu by touching something with flu viruses on it and then touching their mouth or nose. People who catch the flu can infect others beginning 1 day before symptoms develop and up to 5 days after becoming sick. That means that you may be able to pass on the flu to someone else before you know you are sick.

Symptoms of the flu include:

  • High fever
  • Headache
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Dry cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle aches
  • Stomach trouble, such as nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. This symptom is more common in children than adults

Complications

Although most people recover from flu, the CDC estimates that more than 200,000 people in the US are hospitalized and about 36,000 people die from the flu and its complications each year. Those at high risk for serious flu complications include people 65 years or older, people with chronic medical conditions, pregnant women, and young children.

Complications of flu can include bacterial pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections, dehydration, and worsening of chronic medical conditions, such as congestive heart failure, asthma, or diabetes.

Prevention

The best way to prevent the flu is by getting a flu vaccination each fall. There are two types of vaccines:

  • The "flu shot" - an inactivated vaccine containing killed virus given with a needle. The flu shot is approved for use in people 6 months of age and older, including healthy people and people with chronic medical conditions.
  • The nasal-spray flu vaccine - a vaccine made with live, weakened flu viruses that do not cause the flu. It is sometimes called LAIV for Live Attenuated Influenza Vaccine. LAIV is approved for use in healthy people 5 years to 49 years of age who are not pregnant. The one exception is healthy persons who care for persons with severely weakened immune systems who require a protected environment; these healthy persons should get the inactivated vaccine.

About two weeks after vaccination, antibodies develop that protect against influenza virus infection. Flu vaccines will not protect against illnesses caused by other viruses.

October or November is the best time to get vaccinated, but getting vaccinated in December or even later can still be beneficial since most influenza activity occurs in January or later in most years. Flu season can last as late as May.

In general, anyone who wants to reduce their chances of getting the flu can get vaccinated. However, certain people should make it a priority to get vaccinated each year, including:

1. People at high risk for complications from the flu:

  • Children aged 6-59 months of age
  • Pregnant women
  • People 50 years of age and older
  • People of any age with certain chronic medical conditions
  • People who live in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

2. People who live with or care for those at high risk for complications from the flu:

  • Household contacts of persons at high risk for complications from the flu (see above)
  • Household contacts and caregivers of children less than 6 months of age (these children are too young to be vaccinated)
  • Health care workers

    Some people should not be vaccinated without first consulting a physician. They include:

  • People who have a severe allergy to chicken eggs
  • People who have had a severe reaction to an influenza vaccination in the past
  • People who developed Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) within 6 weeks of getting an influenza vaccine previously
  • Children less than 6 months of age (influenza vaccine is not approved for use in this age group)
  • People who have a moderate or severe illness with a fever should wait until their symptoms lessen to get vaccinated

If you have questions about whether you should get a flu vaccine, consult your health-care provider.

Other Prevention Tips

In addition to the flu vaccine, there are other ways to protect yourself from getting the flu:

  • Avoid close contact
    Avoid close contact with people who are sick. When you are sick, keep your distance from others to protect them from getting sick.
  • Stay home when you are sick
    If possible, stay home from work or school. Do not run errands. You will help prevent others from catching your illness.
  • Cover your mouth and nose
    Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing.
  • Clean your hands.
    Washing your hands often will help protect you from germs. Use soap, wash the front and back of your hands, and wash for at least 20 seconds.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.
    Germs are often spread when a person touches something that is contaminated with germs and then touches his or her eyes, nose, or mouth.

Do not ask your physician to prescribe antibiotics for the flu. They do not prevent or cure the influenza virus. In certain cases, antiviral medications are used along with vaccines to prevent and treat influenza. When used for treatment, antiviral drugs may reduce symptoms, shorten the time you are sick by 1 or 2 days, and make you less contagious to others. They do not cure influenza outright and are only available by prescription.

GPRA

The Indian Health Service has a GPRA measure for influenza vaccination of patients age 65 and older, a high-risk group. In 2006, 58% of eligible patients age 65 and older received the flu vaccine nationally. In 2005, 59% of eligible patients age 65 and older received the flu vaccine, despite vaccine shortages early in the flu season. In California, 49% of eligible patients received the flu vaccine in 2006. Increased vaccination rates will help protect this high-risk group from contracting the flu and developing serious flu-related complications.

For more information on flu prevention and the flu vaccine, visit the CDC website: http://www.cdc.gov/flu/ Exit Disclaimer – You Are Leaving www.ihs.gov


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