Communications: Patient Education

Patient Education: MN Family Physicians Encourage Patients to Prepare for Flu Season

Monday, October 30, 2006  
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Dealing with the miserable effects of the seasonal flu is something most Minnesotans would be happy to avoid. That’s why family physicians in the state are reminding patients that the best way to protect themselves from the flu is to get a flu vaccination – usually given in the form of a "flu shot”.

The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by the influenza virus. It is one of the most common illnesses that family physicians see. In fact, as many as 1 in 5 adults are affected each year. While those with the flu typically endure a high fever, chills, a dry cough, muscle and joint pains, headaches, and fatigue, complications from the flu can be serious and even lead to death. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 200,000 people are hospitalized from flu complications every year and an average of 36,000 people die from influenza.

"It’s impossible to predict if you’ll come in contact with the flu virus,” said Christine Albrecht, M.D., a family physician who practices at the Lakewood Clinic in Staples, MN. "That’s why your best line of defense, for yourself and your family, is to get a flu shot.”

Since there appears to be an adequate supply of vaccine this year, anyone who wants to decrease their risk of influenza can get a flu shot. Dr. Albrecht says those considered to be at high risk for flu complications should definitely get one. They are:

 

  • Children aged 6 months until their 5th birthday (Children under 6 months can not be vaccinated)
  • Women who will be pregnant during the influenza season
  • People 50 years of age or older
  • People of any age who have chronic medical conditions such as, heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes, and lung disease, including asthma and emphysema
  • People with weakened immune systems from medicines, cancer or AIDS
  • Residents of nursing home or chronic care facilities

 

Anyone who lives with or cares for those at high risk for complications should also make sure they get vaccinated. That includes health care and child care workers,” Albrecht said.

The flu vaccine protects against three strains of influenza. It is updated each year to help protect against the strains that are most likely going to infect people in the United States. The "flu shot” is an inactivated vaccine that is injected with a needle. It is approved for people over six months of age. An alternative for those who do not tolerate needles, is a nasal spray vaccine. However, because it contains live viruses, it is only an option for healthy people, age 5-49 years, who are not pregnant. People who are allergic to eggs should not get either type of vaccine, since the viruses for the vaccines are initially grown in eggs.

"A common misconception that people have is that you can get the flu from getting a flu vaccine,” said Dr. Albrecht. "But that’s not the case. There is no evidence that either type of vaccine can cause influenza.”

Since it takes about two weeks for a vaccinated person to develop the antibodies that protect against influenza, health providers generally begin giving flu shots in the fall. This provides protection during the peak flu season which is typically December through March, but Dr. Albrecht says it’s important to note that vaccines can be given well into the New Year and still be effective.

While a flu vaccination does not offer complete protection against the virus, especially in older adults, it can reduce the risk of illness and help prevent serious complications if you do get sick. Along with getting a flu shot, other things you can do to help steer clear of influenza is to avoid contact with people you know are sick, wash your hands often, and avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth because it’s an easy way to introduce germs into your body. You should also make sure you are getting plenty of sleep, eating healthy, exercising and managing your stress.

"If you do become ill with symptoms of influenza, stay home from work or school and avoid unnecessary contact with other people so that you can avoid spreading the illness,” said Dr. Albrecht. "Your family physician will be able to help differentiate influenza from other illnesses and develop a care plan to get you feeling better.”

The Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians is a professional association of approximately 3,000 family physicians, family medicine residents and medical students organized to assist family physicians in providing quality medical care in Minnesota. The MAFP is the largest medical specialty organization in Minnesota and is a state chapter of the American Academy of Family Physicians, one of the largest national medical organizations in the United States with more than 103,000 members.


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