Your Best Shot Against the Flu

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Getting a flu shot is one of the easiest measures you can take to protect yourself—and those around you—from illness, hospitalization, or even death.

Yet some people skip the shot because it is inconvenient, costly, or because they don’t like being poked with a needle. Some even assume that because they are fit and healthy they don’t need the vaccine. But no matter how strong you are, you can still come down with the flu. And getting the flu is far worse than catching the common cold.

The flu is a respiratory infection caused by an influenza virus. The virus is highly contagious and is spread through the air or contact between people. You can get it by being near an infected person who is coughing or sneezing. If you touch a surface that an infected person has touched, you can also catch the flu if your hand comes in contact with your nose, eyes or mouth.

Those exposed to the virus often develop symptoms within about four days. People usually feel miserable for a week or so, with symptoms that can include a fever, chills, aches, fatigue, a cough, or a sore throat.Most flu cases are mild and do not need medical care. Simply stay home, rest, and avoid contact with other people. But if you are in a high risk group, or you become very ill, you should contact Dr. Keith Lamy, at Austin family practice medicine clinic. He may prescribe antiviral drugs that can make you better and prevent serious complications.

The virus is especially dangerous if you are have asthma or diabetes, lung or heart disease, or if your immune system is weak. Those people, as well as the elderly and pregnant women, are at higher risk of developing complications. The virus can result in severe pneumonia and blood infections. It can also cause diarrhea, ear infections, and seizures in children. Every year, thousands of people in the United States die from flu, and many are sent to the hospital.

Of the three types of human flu viruses, type A and B cause the most severe symptoms. Both can cause the outbreaks that take place almost every fall and winter. Every year, flu vaccines are updated to match viruses that are circulating globally, with vaccines typically protecting against the three or four most common viruses. But viruses are constantly changing.

Sometimes, a sudden change occurs in the A virus, creating a new subtype or virus that emerges from an animal population that is so different from the same subtype in humans that most people do not have immunity to the new virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When such a shift happens, most people have little or no protection against the new virus.

An extreme example of a shift took place in 1918, when a rare genetic change occurred to create a virus that was new to almost everyone in the world. Starting in 1918, the Spanish flu killed as many as 20 to 50 million people, making it one of the worst infectious pandemics in history. The pandemic took place in a rapid succession of three waves, with fatalities mounting as it spread across the world. Young, healthy adults were hit especially hard.

Typically, influenza kills the very young and the elderly. But deaths in 1918 followed a pattern that has not been recorded before or since. Death rates for young adults were about 20 times higher than in previous years. People were struck down rapidly, sometimes dying within hours of appearing healthy. Some victims died gasping as they tried to clear their airways of bloody fluids that seeped from their nose or mouth. The level of fear and suffering was so profound that it resembled events during the Black Death bubonic plague. Although the 1918 pandemic was rare, experts can not rule out the possibility that another devastating flu pandemic could happen again.

For optimal coverage, you should get a flu vaccine before the end of October. Getting it later, however, is still worthwhile. Shots are available in many locations, including Austin family practice medicine clinic.

Babies younger than 6 months old are at high risk of serious flu complications, but are too young to get a vaccine. If you care for an infant, you should get a shot to help protect them. Unfortunately, it is possible to get the flu even if you have been vaccinated. You may be exposed to a virus that is not covered by the vaccine, or you may be exposed during the two weeks after you were vaccinated before your body is protected. The vaccine is most effective for healthy younger adults and older children. It works less well for older people and those with chronic illnesses.

Although a vaccination is not a perfect shield, it is still your best protection against the influenza virus.

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