Physician Focus: Cold and Flu


Getting sick? How to protect yourself and your family in flu season

By Dr. Benjamin Kruskal and Dr. Laura Riley

Feel like you may be getting a cold? Or could it be the flu? When an illness is as familiar as the common cold or the flu, it’s easy for us to overlook the risks. Every year, 10,000–30,000 Americans die from the flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Even a cold can be dangerous for people with certain health issues. As we head into flu season, this is a good time to revisit what we can do to increase the likelihood that we and the people around us will stay healthy.

Cold and flu symptoms overlap pretty heavily: sneezing, runny nose, stuffy nose, cough, sore throat. If you experience fever, you’re more likely to have the flu. The flu ranges in severity, from sniffles to life-threatening illness. It tends to be more dangerous for some people than others. Pregnant women and newborns, along with the elderly and those with pre-existing, chronic medical conditions, are most at risk.

When pregnant women and newborns, for example, get the flu, they’re more likely to experience severe complications. Those complications can include pre-term labor and lower birth weight in babies. The most recent severe flu outbreak was in 2009, which showed us that (in rare cases) pregnant women can die if they get the flu.

Vaccination is far and away the best protection we have against the flu. Everyone over the age of six months, including pregnant women, should be vaccinated as soon as this season’s flu vaccine is available, unless their health care provider advises against it for medical reasons. That includes all of us with healthy habits: a nutritious diet and regular physical activity are valuable gifts to our health, but they cannot protect us from the flu.

Vaccination reduces our risk of contracting the flu, and may reduce severity of symptoms if we do get the flu. When any one of us gets the flu shot, we help protect others too, including our family, and people in the community who may not be able to get the flu shot. That’s because flu germs are spread from person to person by direct contact (such as shaking hands) and indirect contact (such as touching a countertop after someone has coughed nearby). When a certain proportion of the population has immunity to the flu — usually because they’ve been vaccinated against the strains of influenza circulating that season — a flu outbreak is less likely. This concept is known as “herd immunity” or community vaccination.

The flu shot cannot cause the flu. If someone gets sick after a flu shot, there are several possible explanations. They may have been exposed to a flu virus before they got the shot or soon after receiving it (the vaccine can take a week or so to become effective). They may have a cold or a different respiratory illness that causes flu-like symptoms. They may have caught a strain of influenza that wasn’t in this season’s vaccine (there are so many strains of influenza virus that the flu shot can’t cover all of them).

In addition to vaccination, you can reduce your risk of flu (and colds) by hand-washing, practicing “cough courtesy” (for example, coughing or sneezing into the sleeve of your upper arm to minimize airborne germs) and, if you’re sick, staying home from work or school until you are no longer contagious. If you have symptoms of the flu — which can happen even outside flu season — contact your health care provider.

For information on the availability of flu vaccinations in your area, visit vaccinefinder.org, a resource from the CDC and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. For more on staying healthy in flu season, visit massmed.org to watch Physician Focus, the public access TV show produced by the Massachusetts Medical Society and HCAM-TV.

   

Benjamin Kruskal, MD, is a pediatrician and Chief of Infectious Disease at Atrius Health. Laura Riley, MD, is Director of Obstetrics and Gynecology Infectious Disease at Massachusetts General Hospital


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