Your Health Checkup: Don’t Ignore the Flu

Influenza is not a trivial disease, and new studies reveal additional risks. Learn what you can do to protect yourself.

People coughing, as a result of the flu

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“Your Health Checkup” is our online column by Dr. Douglas Zipes, an internationally acclaimed cardiologist, professor, author, inventor, and authority on pacing and electrophysiology. Dr. Zipes is also a contributor to The Saturday Evening Post print magazine. Subscribe to receive thoughtful articles, new fiction, health and wellness advice, and gems from our archive. 

Order Dr. Zipes’ new book, Damn the Naysayers: A Doctor’s Memoir.

Flu season is here again! Did you get your flu shot? If you haven’t, do it today!

Flu has sickened about 7 million people in the United States so far this season, sending about half to the doctor for fever, chills, and other influenza symptoms, according to new estimates released by federal health officials. Of those who sought medical care, between 69,000 and 84,000 people have been hospitalized, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Influenza is not a trivial disease.

The CDC estimates that, in 2017-2018, flu sickened 49 million people, hospitalized 960,000, and killed about 80,000, setting new records. Ninety percent of the deaths were in people over age 65. However, flu also killed 185 young children and teenagers, more than in any other year since the CDC began using its current surveillance methods.

The vaccine was about forty percent effective last season. The effectiveness of the flu vaccine varies from year to year depending on which flu strain is prevalent and was included in the vaccine. The influenza virus is not stable, like measles for example, but changes over time, making it difficult to match the vaccine to the most active strains of flu (the vaccine must be formulated and manufactured long before researchers know for sure which flu strains will be most prevalent that year). Even if the vaccine is only partially effective, it will still reduce the severity of the infection — and some protection is better than none.

Brand new studies show that if you have heart disease, the flu vaccine may save your life.

Influenza and pneumococcal infections appear to be risk factors for causing adverse cardiovascular events, like heart attacks, especially in high-risk patients. Flu vaccines reduce mortality, acute coronary syndromes, and hospitalization in patients with coronary heart disease (CHD) and/or heart failure, perhaps by preventing the inflammation that accompanies the infection.

Influenza-associated pneumonia is frequently complicated by bacterial co-infection, causing additional hospitalization and mortality. Staphylococcus aureus (“staph”) infection accompanying influenza can be a lethal combination.

Grandparents especially should get flu shots because the risks of the flu and its complications are increased in older people and because of contact with grandchildren, since they are super spreaders. Young children are particularly vulnerable to getting the flu and can be vaccinated with the flu nasal spray. In general, young children, pregnant women, the elderly, and people with underlying diseases fall into a “must vaccinate” category because of the risks from an influenza infection. People 50 and older should also get the new shingles vaccine, as well as the pneumococcal vaccine.

In addition to getting the vaccine, you can do other things to reduce chances of catching the flu. Hand-washing is critical since people sneeze or cough into their hands and then shake hands with others or touch surfaces such as door knobs where the virus can live for several hours. Very young children can spread infection by putting their hands in their mouths. In the middle of a flu outbreak, avoid crowds as much as possible, particularly where there are many sick people. Stay home if you are sick and keep your children from school if they are symptomatic. Cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing.

Take charge of your own health to reduce the chances for getting the flu. And to keep up to date on the latest information about the flu season, visit the CDC’s flu site.

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