Betty White Has the Flu. Will You Get It Too?

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Veteran TV star and comedienne Betty White doesn’t let a lot of things get her down. At almost 91 (next week), Betty is currently on, not one, but two shows: TVLand sitcom Hot in Cleveland and NBC’s practical-joke show Betty White’s Off Their Rockers.

But People magazine is reporting that White is been temporarily sidelined by the flu. Fortunately, her rep also says that she is “on the mend.”

This year’s flu season has been no laughing matter.

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) (which is responsible for collecting data nationwide about the flu) reports that the United States is having an early flu season with most of the country now experiencing high levels of influenza-like-illness (ILI).  And compared to last year (which was relatively mild) the numbers this year are much more dramatic. This map (below), from the CDC, shows last’s year’s numbers (left) over the same time period as this year (right)

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What do I need to know about the flu?

What is influenza (also called flu)?

The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat, and lungs. It can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death.

influenzaSigns and symptoms of flu

People who have the flu often feel some or all of these signs and symptoms:

  • Fever* or feeling feverish/chills
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue (very tired)
  • Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults.

*It’s important to note that not everyone with flu will have a fever.

Complications of flu

Complications of flu can include bacterial pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections, dehydration, and worsening of chronic medical conditions, such as congestive heart failure, asthma, or diabetes.

Certain people are at greater risk for serious complications if they get the flu. This includes older people, young children, pregnant women and people with certain health conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, or heart disease), and persons who live in facilities like nursing homes.

What can I do to protect myself from the flu?

The single best way to protect against the flu is to get vaccinated each year.

How do flu vaccines work?

flu_shotFlu vaccines (the flu shot and the nasal-spray flu vaccine (LAIV)) cause antibodies to develop in the body about two weeks after vaccination. These antibodies provide protection against infection with the viruses that are in the vaccine.

The seasonal flu vaccine protects against three influenza viruses that research indicates will be most common during the upcoming season. Three kinds of influenza viruses commonly circulate among people today: influenza B viruses, influenza A (H1N1) viruses, and influenza A (H3N2) viruses. Each year, one flu virus of each kind is used to produce seasonal influenza vaccine.

There are two types of vaccines:

1. The “flu shot” — an inactivated vaccine (containing killed virus) that is given with a needle, usually in the arm. The flu shot is approved for use in people older than 6 months, including healthy people and people with chronic medical conditions.

There are three different flu shots available:

  • a regular flu shot approved for people ages 6 months and older
  • a high-dose flu shot approved for people 65 and older, and
  • an intradermal flu shot approved for people 18 to 64 years of age.

The viruses in the flu shot are killed (inactivated), so you cannot get the flu from a flu shot. Some minor side effects that could occur are:

  • Soreness, redness, or swelling where the shot was given
  • Fever (low grade)
  • Aches

2. The nasal-spray flu vaccine  (FluMist ®)— a vaccine made with live, weakened flu viruses that is given as a nasal spray. The viruses in the nasal spray vaccine do not cause the flu. This vaccine is approved for use in healthy* people 2 through 49 years of age who are not pregnant.

The viruses in the nasal-spray vaccine are weakened and do not cause severe symptoms often associated with influenza illness. Side effects from FluMist® can include

  • runny nose
  • headache
  • sore throat
  • cough

Good Health Habits Can Help Stop Germs

Although the single best way to prevent seasonal flu is to get vaccinated each year, good health habits like covering your cough and washing your hands often can help stop the spread of germs and prevent respiratory illnesses like the flu.

1. Avoid close contact. Avoid close contact with people who are sick. When you are sick, keep your distance from others to protect them from getting sick too.

2. Stay home when you are sick. If possible, stay home from work, school, and errands when you are sick. You will help prevent others from catching your illness.

3. Cover your mouth and nose. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. It may prevent those around you from getting sick.

4. Clean your hands. Washing your hands often will help protect you from germs. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.

5. Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs are often spread when a person touches something that is contaminated with germs and then touches his or her eyes, nose, or mouth.

6. Practice other good health habits. Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces at home, work or school, especially when someone is ill. Get plenty of sleep, be physically active, manage your stress, drink plenty of fluids, and eat nutritious food.

Source: CDC

Michele R. Berman, M.D. was Clinical Director of The Pediatric Center, a private practice on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. from 1988-2000, and was named Outstanding Washington Physician by Washingtonian Magazine in 1999. She was a medical internet pioneer having established one of the first medical practice websites in 1997. Dr. Berman also authored a monthly column for Washington Parent Magazine.

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