Get vaccine, use common sense to avoid the flu

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You can avoid the flu by using common sense, like washing your hands before and after opening doors in common areas and using paper towels, especially in the kitchen, John Danek advised.

"And be wary in a crowd: If you see someone coughing, that is someone you do not want to sit next to on the bus," said Dr. Danek, medical director of employee health at Jefferson Regional Medical Center.

For children, the tips are the same: "Use personal health habits to stay clean and avoid germs," said Kate Rosatti, director of medical outcomes for Excela Health in Greensburg, a system made up of Latrobe, Westmoreland and Frick hospitals in Westmoreland County.

While personal habits go a long way in avoiding the flu, local medical personnel -- along with those at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- agree the best way to prevent the flu is by getting a flu vaccine.

"But it is not recommended for anyone under 6 months old," said Deb Schotting, infection prevention for Excela.

Common signs and symptoms of the flu include a high fever, aching muscles, chills, headache, dry cough and fatigue.

"It is a generalized body malaise in which that achiness is everywhere," Dr. Danek said. "The cough may be an achy cough in the chest in which you cough and nothing may come up.''

Flu viruses are spread by droplets produced when people who have the flu sneeze or cough. The droplets may land on others who are nearby, be inhaled into lungs -- or land on a nearby surface. When we touch that surface, we often transfer the flu virus to other spots, such as a grocery cart handle.

"Unwittingly we are spreading it all over the place," David Wolfson advised.

Dr. Wolfson is medical director of Children's Community Pediatrics, an affiliate of Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.

While most people who contract the flu will not need medical attention or antiviral medication, there can be flu-related complications, such as ear and sinus infections, bronchitis -- even pneumonia -- which require treatment.

According to the CDC, those at high-risk for developing the complications include children under age 2; those over age 65; pregnant women; and those with medical conditions such as asthma, heart problems, diabetes, kidney and liver disorders.

For Dr. Wolfson, getting a flu vaccine "is the safest and smartest thing to do."

"It is very, very effective; each year there are tens of thousands of deaths related to the flu, and these are preventable," he said.

The flu vaccine causes antibodies to develop that provide protection against infection with the viruses in the vaccine.

If another strain of the flu virus emerges that was not covered in the vaccine, a vaccinated person could still get the flu.

"Newer vaccines have more strains in them for better coverage," Dr. Wolfson said.

According to the CDC, the flu vaccine works best among healthy adults and children. Reduced benefits are often found in studies of children younger than 2, and older people with weaker immune systems.

Recent studies show vaccine can reduce the risk of flu by about 60 percent among the overall population.

If you have an egg allergy -- as most types of flu vaccine contain a small amount of eggs -- or any concerns, Dr. Danek recommends that you consult your physician before getting the vaccine.

He said about 30 percent of the U.S. population gets a flu shot every year.

"It's not enough," he said.

Details: www.cdc.gov/flu/about/season/flu-season-2013-2014.htm.

Margaret Smykla, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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