With flu season likely to ramp up in Los Angeles in coming weeks, health officials and family doctors are trying to get out the word: There are some things you can do to avoid coming down with this year’s flu.
First, get your immunizations — it’s not too late. This year’s flu shot protects against three flu strains: two influenza A's (an H1N1, an H3N2) and one influenza B. These three strains have predominated among infections this year, so it’s as good a preventive vaccine as can be expected.
It’s true that flu shots don’t provide 100% protection, especially for the elderly. In a report released Friday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this year’s vaccine appeared to have an effectiveness rate of 62%. But Dr. Thomas Frieden, CDC director, argued that “that’s a glass 62% full,” and it still provides the best prevention tool at our disposal.
What’s more, said flu researcher Dr. Arnold Monto of the University of Michigan, if you do get sick after a vaccination, your illness may be less severe, and you’re also likely to “shed” less virus — that is, spread less flu around — than a person who hasn’t had the shot.
It takes the flu shot or a flu mist dose about two weeks to begin protecting you from the influenza virus. That means people in California, where the illness hasn’t yet gone gangbusters and might continue circulating as late as May, still have time to benefit from getting immunized. According to state health officials, there have been no reports of vaccine supply shortages, though you might need to call around a bit to find a pharmacy that has the immunizations in stock.
Mind your respiratory etiquette. State epidemiologist Gil Chavez, of the California Department of Public Health in Sacramento, told the Los Angeles Times that there was a silver lining in the 2009-10 H1N1 swine flu pandemic: People learned to mind their “respiratory etiquette,” developing much better habits when it came to shielding others from their germ-spreading sneezes and coughs. The biggie: Cover your mouth with a tissue — or even with your sleeve — if you need to cough or sneeze.
Wash your hands. Often. Frequent hand-washing helps curb the spread of the flu, which people can catch by getting the virus on their hands and then touching their eyes, nose or mouth. Your safest bet is to stick with old-fashioned soap and warm water; hand sanitizers like Purell may not be effective in warding off colds or the flu.
If you do get sick, stay home. Dr. Jonathan Fielding, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, urges people who do feel a flu-like illness coming on to treat their symptoms themselves. “Don’t go to work; don’t send your kids to school,” he said. The reverse is true as well, doctors say: It’s OK to be a little paranoid about sniffling people you encounter during flu’s peak season. “If you’re in Starbucks, and someone’s behind you in line hacking, be a little neurotic about getting out of the way,” said Dr. Sharon Orrange, an internist and professor at USC’s Keck School of Medicine.
But if you’ve got the flu and you figure it out quickly, try to use antiviral medication. If used within the first 48 hours of illness, antiviral medications such as Oseltamivir can relieve flu symptoms and shorten the duration of illness. (You might still feel like you’re going to die, but it will be for three days instead of seven, USC’s Orrange said.) For patients at high risk of complications from influenza — the elderly or people with compromised immune systems — antivirals are particularly valuable.
For more on keeping yourself and your neighbors flu-free, check out advice from the CDC and from the California Department of Public Health, which provides tips and has posted a variety of flu prevention materials.