pediatric housecalls Robert R. Jarrett M.D. M.B.A. FAAP

Seven Truths About “The Flu”

The last flu season was perhaps the worst flu season in the past 10 years. Almost every state in the US reported widespread outbreaks causing disruption and other effects on health care providers, hospitals, schools and industry. The mortality rate was unacceptable and precipitated great anxiety amongst the elderly, the pregnant and the very young.

Despite the fact that we’ve had “flu shots” widely available now for many years and that it’s been a hot topic for the press and media, there remains to this day many myths and false conceptions among the general population.

Let’s dispel at least eight of them in the next few paragraphs; so, at least you will be well informed. These are the real facts.

1. The flu vaccine will not give you flu.

Nasal influenza vaccinationIt’s impossible for you or anyone around you to get “the flu” from flu shots. The vaccine does NOT contain live viruses so anything that might make you ill after getting a shot, probably came from the people standing in line with you when you got it. Or, that runny-nosed teenager taking your order at that burger joint you decided to stop at for lunch while you were out.

The nasal-spray version of the vaccine does contain some live virus BUT it’s been manipulated so that even though it causes your body to produce antigen, the virus is so altered that it’s not really the disease-causing “flu.”

2. The flu shot does not always work right away.

After they stick your arm it takes up to two weeks for your body to produce enough antibodies to ward off any of those fiendish flu viruses.

So, if your nose has happened to take a breath in a room where a sick person has coughed within the last 15 to 30 minutes, or your washed hands have opened a door knob that has previously been opened by a hand that had covered a cough, or any of a hundred different contamination methods – any of this within a week prior or two weeks after your shot, you’ll probably get sick and it won’t be due to the vaccination.

3. You can still get the flu, even if you’ve gotten a flu shot.

What a bummer, but it’s true. There are a lot of strains of the flu hanging around all the time. Few of them share enough antigens that they will be thwarted by antibodies from any other strain.

As soon as enough of the worlds population gets vaccinated, that strain hangs around but not in enough numbers to cause wide-spread epidemics. That’s when all those people who need to live with their animals start contracting newly mutated strains and exposing them out into the world’s commerce.

Even with the caveats, vaccination still drastically lowers your chances of getting the flu

That, coupled with the fact that it takes many months for our vaccine industry to “grow” enough batches of the viral antigens, means that whatever vaccine they produce for us to buy – is merely a BEST GUESS. Many months before the season, experts make a guess of the three strains that will go into the following year’s flu shot.

So even with a flu shot, you could still contract a strain that wasn’t in this year’s batch. And to make it even more of a bummer, any one shot is statistically only 60 to 75 percent effective and we need to rely on what is called “herd immunity.” That’s the fact that if you live and breath around the 75 percent that it has worked on, you won’t be exposed!

Even with all the caveats, the vaccination still drastically lowers your chances of getting the flu, and is still the best line of defense.

4. You still need the vaccine even if you’ve already gotten the flu this year

Can you remember a couple paragraphs back when I told you about the hundreds of different strains of flu? If you contract flu “A” for thanksgiving, what’s to say that flu “B” won’t want to come visiting when you stop to eat at the mall during your Christmas shopping? Just because your miserable-ness got you stocked up on antibodies for one strain doesn’t mean you’ll be protected against the others.

5. Flu is not just dangerous for the elderly

Boy in the ICU with H1N1 influenza.If you’re thinking that it’s just us old guys who should be afraid of flu you’re sounding like some invincible teenager who’s afraid of shots. If that’s your impression then where were you all last year? Did you even pick up a newspaper or listen to the news at all?

Children, babies, pregnant women, most people with any chronic illness… and pretty much anyone who breathed were getting picked off like flies. We don’t know why some people just get laid flat and feel like crap and others go on to the hospital, ICU or in some cases even die.

Children have a less developed immune system and pregnant women often have a bit of respiratory compromise which often puts them in the hospital. Studies have shown that when an expectant mother is immunized against the flu, some of that immunity is passed to the fetus – that’s why we do it.

And infants under 6 months, on whom immunizations don’t have an effect so can’t get vaccinated, are at the complete mercy of their parents to do the right thing and only expose them to people who HAVE been immunized!

6. Cold weather does not cause the flu

Children washing handsLook, just because your mom was wrong all those times she told you going outside with out a coat made you sick, there is absolutely no denying that the flu season occurs when you should be wearing a coat.

The flu virus grows and thrives best in low humidity, which is what the winter has over the summer time. Indoor heated spaces have less humidity so you are at greater risk for contracting the flu when you spend more time inside; besides, that’s where all the already sick people are!

Some people think it’s smart to add a humidifier to your home in the winter, and I know that it sure makes your house feel more comfortable. For me though, my money is on hand-washing. Meticulous hand-washing. Fanatical hand-washing. Border lining on obsessive-compulsive hand-washing. That, and just not going out to eat in restaurants or fast food places in the winter.

7. “Stomach flu” is not flu

Teen vomiting into toiletI’ve asked around to as many “older” docs as I could find and none of us have a clue how the term “stomach flu” got started. If we could find the guy that did it, I know several who would smack him over the head with a newspaper.

About the only thing they have in common is that they both make you feel like “crap.”

You do know that what we have been calling “flu” this whole article is just so I don’t have to keep typing “influenza” don’t you? Influenza is caused by the influenza virus – of many different types. “Gastro-enteritis” is cause by a stomach virus like the rotavirus and makes you throw up and have the runs.

In an older person, vomiting in a person who had influenza would make the doctor look for two causes. In children, we do see some nausea when they have influenza; but, nowhere near like what they have when they have gastro-enteritis.

On the flip side, gastro-enteritis almost never gives you a runny nose or a cough, and a flu shot won’t help prevent it at all.

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