Medical preparations for the influenza season

The fall and Halloween times are here, and all of us have likely begun to prepare for the harvest and winter seasons. In these times of greater medical awareness, the various media outlets have helped inform us regarding prominent seasonal illnesses and the therapeutic options available, but the usual predictions, outlooks, warnings, and uncertainly surrounding the influenza season challenge our usual health attitudes.

Influenza is a common and potentially serious disease. Approximately 10-35 million people are affected each year in America of which about 12,000-700,000 may be hospitalized; 12,000-56,000, especially children and the “frail elderly” may die from influenza and related diseases.

As a health professional and a senior citizen, I also share this uncertainty and try to follow the news of the “flu season” carefully. The questions as to what to believe and what to do confront us as we approach the fall and winter seasons with the lower temperatures, lower humidity, crowding conditions, and the mingling of people in the pre-and post-holiday seasons. Past indicators show that most years’ flu season in Minnesota can be moderate to severe; records from the 2015-6 season showed that Minnesota experienced the most hospitalizations and pediatric deaths since the collection of this morbidity and mortality data began.

The information which is generally known and recommended regarding influenza consists of methods of prevention and therapeutic agents. As discussed in this column in past years, general health measures such as proper diet, appropriate sleep habits, humidified home and office environments and common sense measures such as limiting environmental interaction with others are prominent and required every year. As has been frequently mentioned in the media, one should recognize the “flu” symptoms of fever (greater than 100 degrees F.), cough, sore throat, and body aches, and act accordingly. Staying home from school or work when ill hastens personal healing and helps to control the spread of illness to the general population. Obtaining a yearly influenza vaccination and other vaccinations as suggested or required are now recommended for nearly the entire population. The influenza vaccine is generally to be effective in the usually healthy individuals.

Vaccinations are recommended for those groups at higher risk both by theory and documented disease, such as children under 5 years of age (especially those under 2), pregnant women, adults under 65 with certain immunological needs, health care workers, and adults over 65. Various forms and strengths of the influenza vaccine, including a “High Dose” strength, recommended for seniors, are available this season. Other vaccinations such as pneumococcal, zoster, and Tdap vaccines should also be considered upon discussion with the local health professionals regarding need, value, timing and risks.

Some important facts about this year’s vaccine recommendations are now available on the Internet and from your health care sources. They include:

• The nasal spray formulation (FluMist, LAIV) is not recommended for use again this year

• Studies in 2017 showed that the influenza vaccine was effective in children and thus decreased the “concentration” of the virus in the this usual reservoir available to infect adults

• This year’s vaccine is a “better match” for the circulating A (H1N1 virus)

• Newer vaccines are produced using “cell-based” (non-egg) sources which are similar to the circulating viruses in our environment.

The Minnesota Department of Health has provided a “2017-18 Minnesota Fall Flu Guide” which is available on the Internet. Consultation with your physician, clinic staff, or pharmacist for further information and advice is recommended. A local Minnesota Department of Health staff member is also available for public health concerns and professional consultation.

Therapeutic agents for influenza are limited to symptomatic care with OTC (Over-The-Counter) agents and prescribed drugs such as Thera-Flu and Relenza. However, these drugs are only valuable if used within 48 hours of the onset of illness. There is no proven nutritional supplement, vitamin, mineral, food source, or dietary aid to prevent or treat influenza. Appropriate therapeutic measures such as antipyretics (fever-lowering agents), warm oral liquids, bed rest and nutritional support plus patience and common sense are valuable in all cases. Continuing high fever and symptoms require medical consultation.

Remember, proper and frequent hand washing may be the most valuable health habit.