How to Beat the Flu This Year
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Fitness

How to Beat the Flu This Year

Winter doesn't have to mean getting the flu. Learn how to protect yourself this flu season.

Flu Facts

You've heard the statistics: At least 15 million Americans will get the flu this year; the average person will be so sick she'll miss two days of work. If you're a mom, your chances of getting the flu are particularly high. That's because, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, more children come down with the condition than previously believed, which may increase the likelihood that kids are passing the virus to others. The flu also travels quickly in the workplace or anywhere you're in close proximity to other people, such as on a train or plane, or at a party.

For even the healthiest woman, a knockdown, drag-out case of flu can be debilitating. "The virus can get into the large and small airways of the lungs and then turn into a more serious disease, like pneumonia," says Richard P. Wenzel, MD, president of the International Society for Infectious Diseases. Each year, more than 200,000 patients end up in the hospital and 36,000 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The virus also aggravates other serious diseases that affect women in huge numbers. Research from the University of Texas-Houston Health Science Center shows that the flu may trigger inflammation of the plaque in the coronary arteries and can cause thousands of fatal heart attacks and strokes. And it can worsen conditions like asthma and diabetes.

Fortunately, there's one simple move you can make right now to protect yourself: Get the flu shot. Still not convinced you need one -- or what will happen if you don't get the vaccine? Read on for the answers to all your questions.

Flu Shot Q&A

Experts answer all of your flu shot questions.

Is this really the year to get a flu shot?

Yes. The vaccine is the number one way to prevent the flu -- and the fever, aches and pains, chills, sore throat, cough, and fatigue that come with it. Not only that, but by getting inoculated, you help create a "circle of immunity" that protects others, says Bruce Hirsch, MD, an infectious-disease specialist at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, New York. Think of it this way: "You're protecting your kids, your grandma, everyone at work from getting the flu," says Neil Fishman, MD, director of the department of healthcare epidemiology and infection control and director of the antimicrobial management program at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center. Maybe your coworker in the next cubicle has just gotten pregnant. Or the stranger sitting beside you at the movies has diabetes. You can be infectious for a couple of days before showing symptoms, so you might infect people before you even know you're sick.

If enough people get vaccinated, they can create something germ experts call "herd immunity," a resistance that spreads throughout a whole community. "When influenza hits in a particular area, it's dependent on finding vulnerable hosts," says Dr. Hirsch. "If the majority of people are immune, it's very hard for the virus to rip through the population."

Is the shot my only option?

No. The vaccine comes in two forms: the injectable kind and an inhalable variety, called FluMist. Both versions can take up to three weeks to become effective. They work by tricking your body into thinking it's been bombarded by the real thing. Your system then produces antibodies that remain in the bloodstream for the flu season, which typically runs from October to March. "The antibodies prevent the virus from going inside your cells," says Thomas Breithaupt, PhD, a professor of biochemistry at Des Moines University-Osteopathic Medical Center in Iowa.

FluMist, which has been available since 2003, may offer even more protection than the injectable variety: It stimulates antibodies in the nasal secretions, as well as in the bloodstream, making it extremely difficult for the virus to enter your body. In practice, doctors say, both types of vaccines offer adequate protection. FluMist is currently approved for people between 5 and 49. However, pregnant women or others with compromised immune systems should avoid FluMist because it contains live viruses that have been weakened, says Dr. Wenzel. "There's little risk, but it's a cautionary approach."

Some people say that the vaccine can give you the flu. Is that true?

No. While there are all kinds of people who claim they got the shot and as a result got the flu, such a thing is nearly impossible, says Brian Currie, MD, senior medical director at New York City's Montefiore Medical Center. That's because there's no live virus in the flu shot, and while FluMist does contain a live virus, it's modified and hasn't been reported to cause the flu. So how did this myth start? The vaccine can cause side effects, including aches or a low-grade fever, as your immune system gears up to protect you. But you won't catch full-fledged influenza from it. Promise.

Flu Shot Q&A, cont.

Keep reading for more expert answers to your flu shot concerns.

Are you fully protected from the flu once you get the vaccine?

Not exactly. Seasonal flu comes in numerous strains, each responding to slightly different antibodies. Every year, scientists worldwide collect flu viruses as part of an effort to predict which strains will hit hardest that winter. The information is sent to the Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization, which select three varieties for the vaccine.

When the forecast is accurate, the vaccine can be extremely protective. One study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that it was almost 90 percent effective for people under age 50. (The figure drops considerably among the elderly, whose weaker immune systems have trouble producing the required antibodies.) Still, it offers no guarantee, especially when the predictions are off, which happens about one year in five. That's why experts also recommend the precautions on the next page.

Is the shot safe for a woman who's trying to have a baby?

Yes. In fact, if you're pregnant or planning to get pregnant during flu season, you should get the shot (but not the inhalable FluMist), experts say. That's because pregnant women's immune systems are weaker, so they're at high risk for the flu -- and for heart and lung complications -- during their second and third trimesters and immediately after they give birth, explains Dr. Hirsch.

Do you have to get the shot from your doctor?

No. In many communities, you can walk into your local health department, drugstore, or even the supermarket in October and November and get a flu shot at special clinics set up there. A doctor or nurse gives the shot; in some states, a pharmacist can also administer it. Lots of businesses offer the vaccine for free to employees; some hospitals do as well. When you do have to pay (typically $15 to $30 for the shot) the cost is often covered by health insurance. Check with your provider. To find out where you can get the vaccine, go to flucliniclocator.org.

Will there be a shortage of the vaccine this year?

No. According to the manufacturers, there will be 100 million doses for the 2006-2007 flu season -- more than ever before.

Is the vaccine safe for everyone?

No. If you have a severe egg allergy, stay away from both the shot and FluMist. "The vaccine is cultivated in chicken eggs, and even though it's purified, there can be a small amount of egg protein in it," explains Dr. Currie. Ditto if you've had a severe reaction to a previous flu shot, which might indicate an allergy.

Also steer clear of the vaccine if you've ever contracted the neurological condition known as Guillain-Barre syndrome within six weeks of getting a flu shot. In the mid 1970s, a special swine-flu vaccine seemed to trigger this disease in a small number of cases. It causes muscle weakness and even paralysis. Although researchers have found no unusual recurrences, they say it's better not to take a chance.

Doesn't the flu vaccine contain mercury, which may be linked to autism in kids?

Some flu shots do have thimerosal, a mercury-containing compound, as a preservative. A few years ago, some of the nation's leading experts reviewed the research and found no evidence that exposure to the vaccine was linked to higher rates of autism in children. However, if you still have a concern, ask your doctor about a thimerosal-free vaccine.

Flu Fighters

After you've gotten your flu shot, follow these additional strategies to reduce your risk of getting sick.

Wash your hands.

The influenza virus is highly contagious and spreads easily. Experts suspect that it can live on objects such as telephones, doorknobs, computer keyboards, and elevator buttons for as long as 48 hours. To protect yourself, wash your hands frequently with soap and warm water.

Eat a balanced diet.

Fruits and vegetables, whole grains, protein, and low-fat dairy can give you the vitamins and antioxidants you need to help keep immunity strong and boost your disease-fighting white blood cells.

Exercise.

At the Human Performance Laboratory at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, researchers found that people who walked at a brisk pace for 40 minutes five days a week had half the number of sick days of those who didn't exercise.

Get enough rest.

Research shows that lack of sleep can reduce your number of natural killer cells -- the body's defense against infection. Aim for seven to eight hours every night.

Don't smoke.

"People who light up are much more susceptible to the flu," explains Gilbert Ross, MD, executive and medical director of the American Council on Science and Health in New York City. That's because smoking impedes the body's ability to fight off infection.

You've Got the Flu -- Now What?

One minute you feel fine; the next, you've got a headache, a fever, and muscle aches and pains. "The flu strikes like lightning," says Susan J. Rehm, MD, vice chairman of the department of infectious diseases at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. At the first sign of these symptoms, ask your doctor for a prescription for Tamiflu or Relenza, antiviral medications that have been shown to lessen the intensity and duration of influenza if taken within the first 48 hours.

Once the flu is full-blown, the best thing you can do is stay in bed and drink plenty of liquids to keep your body hydrated. To help lessen your symptoms, try:

  • Ibuprofen or acetaminophen: To soothe a fever and ease aches, chills, and a sore throat.
  • An antihistamine: To quiet a cough. You can also take an over-the-counter cough medicine, but according to the latest research from the American College of Chest Physicians, many of these remedies may be ineffective.
  • Saline nasal sprays and/or a decongestant: To help unstuff your nose and open breathing passages.
  • Chicken soup: Studies at the University of Nebraska showed that the soup can reduce inflammation and may limit symptoms.

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, November 2006.

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