Can a Flu Shot Really Protect Me From the Flu?
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Can a Flu Shot Really Protect Me From the Flu?

“Doctor, the next patient is here with flu symptoms.”

It’s becoming a familiar refrain in 2014 already. Unfortunately, given a double dose of bad news from the Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC), we’re just at the beginning of what could be a fairly rough flu season. For starters, the dominant flu strain this fall has been a tough bug (called H3N2) that, in previous years, has caused increased hospitalization and death rates -- especially among the elderly, very young children and people with chronic medical conditions. Even worse, this year’s flu vaccine doesn’t fully cover that nasty strain. Long story short, the virus mutated after the vaccine was already in production -- so the vaccine will be less effective this year than in other years.

Great. So now what are you supposed to do to avoid catching the flu? Follow these tips:

1. Get your flu shot anyway. The CDC says the vaccine will still protect you from other strains that are going around, and even if you come down with H3N2, the vaccine will lessen the severity of your illness. Everyone in my household gets it, and I can’t give any better endorsement than that! (But if you’re going to get the shot, hurry up, because it takes two weeks to kick into effect). 

2. Be vigilant about protecting yourself and your family. This means really frequent hand-washing and hand sanitizing this year. Seriously, do it all the time. Plus, if you have young children, older relatives or anyone else with a chronic medical problem, be extra-sensitive about not exposing them to anyone who is sick.

3. Think about taking zinc. Vitamin C, too. Technically, these are both more relevant for fighting the common cold (vitamin C to prevent it, and zinc to shorten the illness if taken promptly after the onset of symptoms). Results for the flu are mixed. However, it’s a no-holds-barred world out there for the flu this season, so if you don’t take any medications that would interact with either of these, there’s no harm in trying vitamin C for prevention or zinc if you feel symptoms coming on.

4. Ask your doctor if you need antiviral medications. Two drugs, oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza), are approved for flu treatment. They won’t eradicate your flu, but if you start taking them within the first 48 hours of symptoms, they may lessen its severity, lower your risk of infecting others, reduce complications and help you get well about a day sooner. These drugs are especially advised for people with the flu who have severe illness; are age 2 or younger or if they are older than 65; have chronic lung, heart, kidney, liver or blood disorders; are pregnant or two weeks postpartum; or have other chronic health problems.

Doctors also recommend that certain people take antiviral medications to prevent the flu -- for example, if they’ve been exposed to a person known to have it. This includes children and adults at high risk for severe flu-related illnesses, or non-immunized people who have close exposure with children under age 2. Talk with your doctor if you think you may fall into these categories and have been exposed to the flu.

This content was published in 2014.

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