By DR. GINA LAGARDE | Medical Director, LDH Region 9
As the heat of a seemingly endless summer finally begins to wane and the crisp coolness of fall takes its place, it’s the perfect time to schedule flu vaccinations for you and your family. Why now? Because here in Louisiana, flu activity is off to an earlier start than usual.
The Louisiana Department of Health’s Infectious Disease Epidemiology Program has already seen statewide influenza-like activity, which is a fever greater than 100 degrees Fahrenheit plus a cough and/or sore throat, in the absence of another diagnosis. In Louisiana, 4.4% of patient visits were due to influenza-like illness, which is higher than the regional baseline of 3.8% and the highest level of influenza-like activity so far in the nation this flu season.
The flu is a highly contagious respiratory illness that kills thousands of people every year. Last year in Louisiana, there were 14,000 hospitalizations, 1,400 deaths and one confirmed pediatric death. If you are 6 months or older and you don’t have a medical reason, such as a prior allergic reaction to the flu shot, you should get vaccinated. It’s the best way to reduce your chance of getting and spreading the flu.
Cold or flu?
It’s often hard to distinguish the difference between a cold and flu since both illnesses share several of the same symptoms. While both are unwelcome, a cold settles in gradually and flu shows up abruptly. Here’s how to tell the difference between the two.
- It’s flu if you have …
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Body aches
- It’s a cold if you have …
- Loss of appetite
- Sore throat
With plenty of fluids, rest and treating symptoms with over-the-counter medications, most people will recover from the flu on their own. If you have had the flu, stay home for at least 24 hours after the symptoms subside, unless you’re very sick and in need of medical care.
Anyone suspected of having the flu is strongly recommended to take antiviral drugs. This treatment may make the illness milder, shorten the time a person is sick and prevent serious complications and/or even death. If you or a family member may have the flu, call your doctor immediately.
These healthy everyday habits help slow the spread of flu:
- Coughing/sneezing into your sleeve or tissue and throwing the tissue in the trash
- Washing your hands often with soap and water, or using an alcohol-based sanitizer
- Avoiding close contact with sick people
Why the flu shot matters
Flu can be especially dangerous to the very old, the very young, pregnant women and people who have certain chronic medical conditions. When everyone around people from these groups is vaccinated, the so-called “herd immunity” of a large population of vaccinated people helps to keep them from getting sick.
Pregnant women are especially at risk when it comes to flu, but don’t worry — it’s safe to get your flu shot, and it’s recommended by the CDC. Changes in the immune system, heart and lungs during pregnancy make pregnant women and up to two weeks after birth more prone to severe illness from flu, including illness resulting in hospitalization. Flu is also a danger to the developing baby, who may have neural tube defects or other complications due to flu symptoms in the mother. Fortunately, a mom who gets her flu vaccine during pregnancy will pass antibodies on to her baby, helping protect the baby from flu after birth.
Schoolchildren are another group particularly affected by flu. Every year, about 28% of school-age kids come down with the flu. For every 100 children with the flu, there’s an average of 63 missed school days a year. Not only that, but for every 100 kids with the flu, 25 family members will come down with the flu within three days, leading to lost work time and reduced productivity.
Don’t wait — vaccinate!
An annual vaccination is your best prevention against the flu. It’s available either as the traditional shot or a nasal spray. The spray is recommended for healthy people ages 2 to 49 who are not pregnant and don’t have chronic illnesses, but check with your doctor or other primary care provider before getting the spray.
We have had flu vaccines for more than 50 years now and they are very safe. The CDC and FDA closely monitor vaccine safety, and vaccines are given in a setting where healthcare staff can rapidly recognize and treat a potentially severe allergic reaction with equipment on site. Besides safety concerns, people cite lots of reasons why you shouldn’t get a flu shot. These reasons are all wrong. Learn more about these myths – and the facts –here.
This October and November, flu vaccine clinics where you can get a flu shot at no cost to you are being held around Louisiana. To find the location closest to you, click here. Make sure to bring your private insurance, Medicaid or Medicare card, and wear short or loose-fitting sleeves. If you’re unable to make it to one of these clinics, you can get a flu shot at any time during flu season from your parish health unit, local pharmacies, clinics, doctors’ offices and federally qualified (community) health centers. Find a provider near you by clicking here.
For more information, visit ldh.la.gov/FightTheFlu.