Defending Your Family Against the Flu
With flu season nearly upon us, UW Health infectious disease specialist James Conway, MD, believes it's time to recognize influenza for what it is - a potentially serious infectious disease that hospitalizes more than 100,000 Americans every year, and kills more than 30,000.
"It's what I call the 20,000-pound gorilla standing in the room," says Dr. Conway. "As you look at all the vaccine-preventable diseases, people have really ignored the importance of influenza."
Why sweep such a potentially serious threat under the rug? Dr. Conway says several factors have converged in recent years to cause general complacency about the flu.
"It's really been a combination of fear of having to actually try to deal with the magnitude of the problem, and I think a little bit of denial that it's as big a problem as it is," Dr. Conway says.
"And I think this is the public health system, the government, hospitals, families, doctors - everybody for many years just sort of thought of influenza as an inconvenience, and I think there were a lot of misconceptions," he adds.
Preventive Measures for Fighting the Flu
Though getting flu vaccine is the best defense, other basic preventive measures will help you and your family fend off the flu.
Influenza spreads primarily through respiratory droplets in the air from coughing and sneezing. So, when you touch something or someone that's been contaminated by these droplets and then put your hands near your face, you also risk infection. That's why it's important to keep germs off your hands through proper hand hygiene, and to keep your hands away from your eyes, nose and mouth.
Frequently washing your hands with soap and warm water or alcohol-based gels is a good way to prevent the spread of germs that can cause many illnesses, including the flu. You can get yourself and your children in the hand hygiene habit by stocking mini-bottles of alcohol-based cleansers in backpacks, purses, lockers and briefcases.
Additionally, avoid contact with sick people during flu season, make sure your stress level is in check and ensure that you and your family are getting adequate amounts of sleep to strengthen your body's resistance.
"The other thing is to stay away from public places if you are ill. And if you're severely ill, try to stay away from work or school so you don't spread your illness significantly," Dr. Conway advises. "But if you're forced to go into these settings, let people know you're sick so they can take precautions. It's the courtesy stuff that's the primary thing."
Keeping Up Your Guard
Though getting flu vaccine is a highly effective preventive measure, no vaccine provides 100 percent protection.
"So you really need to keep your guard up during cold and flu season - do what you can to protect yourself with vaccines, but still do everything you can and not let your guard down and say, 'OK, I've been vaccinated - I don't need to worry about hand hygiene,'" warns Dr. Conway.
Another reason to remain vigilant - sometimes, certain anti-viral medications used to treat severe cases of the flu are not as effective, due to the resistance of the virus that causes the flu. This can happen from year to year as flu strains change.
"That's another reason why I think we need to be more aggressive and more successful on the prevention side of things," Dr. Conway says.
Common Flu Vaccine Misconceptions
While you consider whether or not you will get flu vaccine, be careful not to be misled by some common myths about flu vaccine:
- I heard you can get the flu just by getting flu vaccine
False. If you come down with flu symptoms immediately after you get vaccinated, it's likely just coincidental, says Dr. Conway.
- If I get flu vaccine, I can still get the flu
True - no vaccine is 100 percent effective. However, prevention (e.g., getting flu vaccine) is your best defense against contracting a serious case of the flu.
- I didn't get my flu vaccine early in the season - it's too late now
False. Though it's preferable to get your flu vaccine in October or November, it's not too late to get vaccinated as late as January or even February. The flu season may last until spring.
UW Health and the Centers for Disease Control urge vaccinations for everyone 6 months old and older.
You can schedule a flu vaccine appointment at any UW Health primary clinic and all of our pharmacy locations, linked below: