Flu Season Is Here!

The 2016-2017 flu season has arrived.

Influenza (more commonly known as flu) activity in the United States is on the rise. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that out-patient clinic visits for influenza-like illness (where patients report symptoms that suggest an influenza infection) are elevated compared to baseline all over the nation. In Limestone County, significant influenza activity was detected (as reported by the Alabama Department of Public Health, and based not just on symptoms, but also a positive flu test) for the past 3 weeks.

There is also an uptick of hospitalizations related to the flu. Based on CDC data, the age group that has had the most number of hospitalizations for influenza have been people 65 years and older. This is followed by the 50-64 years age group. These age groups also account for majority of seasonal flu-related deaths in recent years.

The good news is that it is not too late to get the flu vaccine to get protected against the flu.

There are specific groups of people that should not skip the flu vaccine, either because they are at higher risk of developing complications, or because they can expose those who are at high-risk to get the infection. These include the following (based on the CDC recommendations):

1. Children aged 6 months to 5 years and 11 months.
2. Adults aged 50 years and older.
3. Anyone with a long-term lung or heart condition (examples include heart failure, congenital heart disease, COPD, asthma), or any chronic kidney, liver, neurologic, hematologic (blood) and metabolic condition (including diabetes).
4. Any individual with immunosuppression (weakened immune system), either because of a known condition (such as HIV) or because they are on medications that weaken the immune system (such as long term steroids).
5. If you live with or care for anyone who meets the criteria for #1-4 (you can give them the flu!).
6. Anyone who is pregnant or plans on becoming pregnant during the flu season.
7. Residents of nursing homes.
8. Health care personnel.
9. Morbidly obese individuals with a body-mass index greater than 40 (if you don’t know your BMI, there are several calculators available online. All you need is your height and weight).
10. American Indians and Alaskan natives.
11. Children 6 months to 18 years of age who are taking long-term aspirin or those who may be at risk for developing Reye’s syndrome.

Symptoms of influenza include fever, headache, and muscle aches. A cold, sore throat, and a non-productive cough can accompany these symptoms. While a lot of people “get over” the flu, some individuals develop complications, which can lead to death or disability. The complications of influenza include pneumonia (from influenza and other bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus), rhabdomyolysis (muscle inflammation and destruction, which can lead to kidney failure and death), and infection of the brain (encephalitis).

Antiviral treatment is available for high-risk individuals who get the flu. These antivirals are prescribed by your physician or health care provider and can lessen the risk of developing complications (but do not get rid of them entirely). The best cure, however, is prevention, and you can do this by getting your flu shot, washing your hands frequently, and avoiding contact with sick persons. If you get sick, minimize your activity (avoid going to crowded areas where you can spread it to others), wash your hands regularly, and cover your cough.

The flu vaccine is typically well-tolerated, and one of the more common adverse effects is soreness at the injection site. Vaccine technology has gotten advanced over the recent years that some formulations contain very little egg protein, so people with an egg allergy can receive certain types of flu vaccines. If you have questions or concerns about the flu vaccine, talk to your healthcare provider.
By: Sasha Acelajado, MD