Vaccines, healthy lifestyle will help you through flu season

Column by Jordan Covvey

Most people blow off flu season. It seems that clinicians have to beg most patients to go out and get a flu shot, despite the fact that they are quick, relatively painless and inexpensive. My favorite excuse? “I’ve never gotten the flu, so why do I need a flu shot now?” My answer? “You know, an estimated 30 to 50 million people died in the 1918 flu pandemic. That’s about twice the number of people that died in World War I. You might reconsider.”

Granted, things are not quite as bad nowadays. We’ve gained considerable medical knowledge, and treatment has advanced. But the flu remains more serious than you might think. An estimated 200,000 people are hospitalized yearly due to flu complications, and 36,000 people still die from the flu each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Influenza is considered the top cause of vaccine-preventable death in the United States. The good news is that with a little education and prevention, you have a good chance at dodging the statistics.

Flu is a respiratory virus that appears with a sudden onset of many different symptoms, including fever, headache, tiredness, dry cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle aches and sometimes stomach symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. While the symptoms are usually non-life threatening for most, some people are at an increased risk for more serious illness, including children, the elderly, pregnant women and those patients with chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes or asthma. And even if you aren’t considered a part of one of those high-risk groups, chances are you are in close contact with someone who is. Coughing your flu all over your grandma might not end well for her.

So what can you do? First and foremost, get a flu vaccination. Despite what you might hear, you cannot get the flu from a flu vaccine. The traditional injectable vaccine is made from killed virus, chosen based on the viral strains expected to hit in a given year. This is the reason you have to get vaccinated yearly, so don’t expect protection if you got vaccinated last year. While the vaccine can cause minor reactions in some people, including aches and low-grade fever, this is not the flu and does not mean the vaccine didn’t work. However, there are some people with certain allergies/conditions who should not get the flu vaccine, so you should discuss this with your healthcare provider. Flu season generally runs from September to March, so get your vaccination as soon as they are available — it takes about two weeks after your vaccination to develop protection against the virus.

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you get the flu. There is a degree of luck when scientists develop the flu vaccine for a given year; predictions on what strains of flu will hit are made based on disease trends and expectations for the upcoming flu season. Because of the nature of the guessing game, it’s difficult to tell you in advance how effective the vaccine truly will be. This doesn’t mean that you should skip vaccination — if you are vaccinated and by chance get the flu, your chance for deadly complications is significantly less. Let’s say that scientists developed a blanket vaccine for cancer, although they couldn’t quite tell you just how effective it really is. Would this stop you from getting vaccinated?

So to top it all off, in addition to getting vaccinated, you should practice good prevention. Get plenty of sleep, a healthy diet and plenty of exercise. Good health habits breed a strong immune system. Resist the urge to share food, drinks, toothbrushes, lollipops and the like with your friends. You might laugh, but I bet you’ve done it. I have. Lastly, wash your hands often, especially in public places. Or invest $2 in a bottle of hand sanitizer. Think of how gross it is when you accidentally discover gum under your seat in class. Chances are, there is more than gum on your desk.

Hopefully, with a little preemptive action and a little luck, you’ll make it through flu season without getting sick. I wouldn’t want you to miss class or anything.