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Flu 411: What everyone needs to know

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It's flu season in Baltimore.

A few days after Christmas, Baltimore resident Kathleen Dudley began experiencing telltale signs of the flu — fever, chills, body aches, sore throat, cough and overall exhaustion.

"The worst part — the fever and chills — lasted for about 24 hours," she says. "But the fatigue and cold symptoms lasted much longer."

According to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, between Oct. 1 and Jan. 5, 6,273 Marylanders tested positive for influenza; nearly 30 percent of those positive tests occurred during the week ending Jan. 5.

"According to the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], this year's flu season is among the highest in recent years," says Dr. Marc Leavey, an internal medicine physician with Lutherville Personal Physicians.

"The flu is a serious disease," he says. "Every year, thousands of people die from the flu. You can't shake off the flu, and if you've never had it, consider yourself lucky. But luck runs out."

For those who think it's too late for a shot or are holding onto other myths about the flu, we asked local experts to give us answers about how to prevent getting the influenza virus and what to do if you already have it. Hint: Chicken soup is good for more than the soul.

What are the basic steps I should take to avoid getting the flu?

"Get a flu shot, wash your hands and use common sense," says Leavey.

The flu vaccine is especially important for people at higher risk for flu complications. "If you have medical problems or are elderly or young, you are at higher risk for complications of the flu," says Dr. Joi Johnson-Weaver, a family medicine physician at GBMC at Perry Hall.

During this flu season in Maryland, 47 percent of people who have been hospitalized because of influenza were 65 or older.

Who should get the flu shot?

"The CDC recommends that everyone age 6 months and up should get the shot," says Johnson-Weaver.

Flu season typically begins in the fall and lasts through the spring. Though it is currently midseason, physicians stress that it is not too late to get the shot. "In fact, even if you have had the flu, the CDC recommends that you get a flu vaccine," says Leavey. The vaccine can still protect you from other strains of the disease.

However, people with certain conditions, including allergies, current febrile illness or a history of Guillain-Barre syndrome, may not be good candidates for the vaccine. If you have any doubts about whether you are an appropriate candidate, talk with your physician before getting the vaccine.

How do I get the flu shot?

"The easiest way," says Leavey, "is to ask your physician. The flu vaccine is normally covered by health insurance and Medicare, and there are free flu shot clinics throughout the area. You can check online or call your local health department for information."

Flu shots are also available at many pharmacies and through some employers.

What is the difference between the flu shot and the nasal-spray flu vaccine?

According to Johnson-Weaver, "The flu shot is an inactivated virus that is delivered via a shot. The flu mist is a weakened live virus given through a spray in the nose." Johnson-Weaver says the mist is more effective than the shot, but it is only appropriate for healthy, non-pregnant people between the ages of 2 and 49.

If I get the flu shot, will that guarantee that I won't get the flu?

Not necessarily, according to physicians, who say the vaccine is between 60 percent and 65 percent effective. Each year, says Johnson-Weaver, the vaccine is retooled to match the strain of flu scientists predict will be most prevalent that season.

"Over the last 10 years," she says, "the vaccine has been matched well to the current flu virus."

Still, warns Leavey, not all strains are covered. This year, "The A(H3N2) seems to be a particularly severe strain which may not be well-covered by the current vaccine. It is causing about 10 percent to 15 percent of the cases" this season.

How long does it take for a flu shot to be effective? If I get one this year, do I need another next flu season?

"It takes several weeks for your body to develop antibodies to the influenza virus after getting a vaccine," says Leavey.

He and Johnson-Weaver agree that a flu shot is necessary every year, since each year new strains of the virus circulate.

My office mate seems sick. How can I avoid catching what she has?

The flu is an airborne virus, though most flu viruses are transmitted through touch, according to Leavey. "Don't let anyone cough or sneeze on you," he says. "But wash your hands after shaking hands or handling material. And don't put your unwashed hands to your eyes, nose or mouth."

Johnson-Weaver adds, "The flu virus can travel up to 6 feet in large respiratory droplets. If someone is not covering the mouth when they cough or sneeze, I would stay this far away from them."

What is the difference between the flu and a bad cold?

A cold is "an upper respiratory infection, with symptoms primarily above the neck," says Leavey. The flu, however, "is more systemic and severe." Fever, aches, chills and fatigue are more common in people with the flu, while stuffy nose, sneezing, sore throat and cough are more likely signs of a cold.

If I get the flu, what should I do?

"Call your health care provider if you think you are ill," recommends Leavey. According to the CDC, if you contract the flu virus, your physician may be able to prescribe an anti-viral medication that will make the symptoms milder and shorten the duration of the illness.

The medication is most effective when administered in the first two days of infection.

"You are contagious with the flu for an average of five days and up to a total of 10 days," says Johnson-Weaver. During that time, she recommends staying away from immuno-compromised people, covering your cough, frequently washing your hands, and staying home from work or school.

While you are at home, consider some chicken soup — it really does work. "A study was done back in 1978," says Leavey. "Chicken soup significantly improved the rate of movement of the mucus in the nasopharynx, which could lead to improved symptoms and shorter duration of the illness."

Where can I find more information about the flu?

Check the CDC website for additional information about the flu, how to prevent it, and what to do if you contract the virus: cdc.gov/features/fluactivity/

Free flu shot clinics

Given the recent surge in flu cases, some counties are offering free flu shot clinics. However, Karen Black of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene warns that many local health departments — including Baltimore County's — are not scheduling vaccination clinics because "they simply don't have enough vaccine."

"Call first, or visit the local health department websites," Black warns. "Also, please be aware that some clinics do request a donation for flu vaccine. However, they cannot refuse service due to an inability to pay."

Regional clinics scheduled during January include:

Anne Arundel County: Free flu shots will be available at the Glen Burnie Health Center (416 A St. S.W., Glen Burnie; 410-222-6633) during January. Residents can call for appointments or attend weekly walk-in clinics, which take place on Tuesdays and Fridays from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. For more information, call the Department of Health Flu Information Line at 410-222-7343 or visit aahealth.org.

Howard County: Residents can obtain a free flu vaccine on Thursday, Jan. 24, from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and again on Friday, Jan. 25, from noon to 3 p.m. at the Columbia Health Center (7180 Columbia Gateway Drive, Columbia, 410-313-7500).The clinic is open to the public, but appointments can be made via the Howard County Health Department website, howardcountymd.gov.

Baltimore City: Free flu shots are available to children under the TIKE program (To Immunize Kids Everywhere). Shots are available daily at different Baltimore City Health Department locations. For a list of locations and more information, call 410-396-4454 or visit baltimorehealth.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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