The influenza season starts now (Fall - October) and runs into the Spring (May). It peaks in January and February but right now is the time to get this year's flu shot. The reason is that the shot works by revving up antibodies to attack the virus when you are exposed to it. It takes a little time for the antibodies to be produced and you want them there when the virus starts making its rounds. That is why this is the time to be immunized.
Influenza is seasonal and each year the virus that is circulated is changed. This is why last year’s shot is unlikely to be effective against this year’s circulating virus. Even this year’s shot cannot be guaranteed effective against this year’s virus, but the scientists who prepare it try to guess at the antigenic makeup of this year’s virus and produce a vaccine that is usually reasonably protective.
Why the Fuss Over Influenza?
There are a number of reasons to worry about seasonal flu. First of all, you can count on it coming during its season and when one gets exposed, it usually is highly contagious. In other words it will make a lot of people (5-20% of all Americans) sick. The symptoms are fever, muscle and joint aches/pains, sneezing, and cough. These symptoms last a week to two weeks and cause you to feel really miserable. Influenza can be complicated by pneumonia and this is what generally causes the deaths that occur in a small percentage of those who get it. On average 200,000 people are hospitalized with the flu each year and roughly 10% of those will die. So this is a real threat.
Another reason for concern about influenza is that seniors (those of us over 65) are at risk to develop complications from the flu. As mentioned above, it is the complications that are lethal. In addition to pneumonia the complications include ear or sinus infections, dehydration, and a worsening of chronic health conditions already present.
Another reason the flu attracts so much attention at this time of year is that it is preventable if you take the time and nominal expense to get a vaccination against it. So many diseases that we are susceptible to have no easy one-step preventive measure like getting a flu shot. If we could prevent cancer and heart disease with a single shot every year, the lines would be long. We can prevent flu which has a certain mortality, primarily in older patients.
How is Flu Transmitted?
Influenza is a virus that spreads primarily from person to person through contact of the virus with our mucous membranes. So if someone with the virus coughs or touches us with virus contaminated hands, then the virus will inevitably end up in our mouth, eyes, nose, and lungs and we become infected. For this reason it is important to stay away from anyone known to have the flu. That person can usually infect you the day before he/she comes down with the symptoms and for about the first week of the disease. During flu season be diligent about washing your hands and not touching potentially infected surfaces (door knobs, counters, etc.) where infected people have been.
What About Pandemic Influenza?
No discussion about the flu is complete without the reminder that the seasonal flu can undergo genetic changes called “antigenic shift” when two different influenza strains combine to form a new subtype that can become a very severe, widespread influenza. Because of its unique new makeup this virus will strike many more different people – simply because there is no immunity in the world’s population to this new potentially deadly virus.
Over the past 100 years there have been several of these pandemics. None have been as deadly as the pandemic of 1918-1919 that was aided by World War I because so many people were moving – either as armies or refugees. This flu became known as the Spanish Flu and an estimated 50 million people died from it. That is correct 50 million: about 675,000 were in the U.S. Remember this was before antibiotics or an effective vaccination program, but the fact that so many people world-wide died from pandemic influenza has public health officials always frightened each time a new, deadly virus appears as has happened in 1957-1958, 1968-1969 (Hong Kong flu), 1976 and 2009-2010 (swine flu), and 1997-1999 (avian flu).
Any new or resurrection of alterations in these older influenza virus types could be a colossal public health tragedy as in 1918-1919, because the virus does not encounter natural antibodies. The Ebola virus that is not related to influenza has heightened everyone’s concern about a deadly virus.
The Bottom Line
Influenza is mentioned only to be avoided. The two things that you can do to improve your chance of healthy aging are to get your flu shot and to avoid known, contagious flu victims. Now is the time to practice these two strategies.