According to the experts who keep track of these types of figures, this year we are experiencing the flu virus in record numbers. It’s an epidemic, so much so that The Big Apple, my home town, is now known as “Flu” York. Since it is extremely contagious, that leaves the question of how to prevent getting it to begin with. I mean it kind of makes you want to wear a mask and surgical gloves in public. (Wait! That would be considered weird?)
But of course, the flu virus is not just limited to New York City — it’s all over. Aside from washing our hands well, drinking plenty of liquids, eating extremely healthfully to build up our immune systems, and staying out of rush-hour packed subways for the time being (no need to ask me twice on that one, I assure you), what else can we do? For advice, I turned to Don Smart, a specialist pharmacist in the Express Scripts Pulmonary Therapeutic Resource Center (TRC). Indeed, Don and his team play a more important role than ever in helping patients through this nasty cough and cold season.
“As someone who focuses on pulmonary conditions,” he says, “what concerns me is that many of those at the greatest risk will neglect to obtain a flu vaccine this year.” To that end, he and his colleagues counsel patients about respiratory illnesses on a daily basis to help them achieve better health outcomes. “And one simple but important step they can take to maintain good respiratory health is to get a flu vaccine.”
According to Smart, respiratory infections like influenza are more serious in patients with asthma and COPD, as such infections can often lead to pneumonia. “However, per the Centers for Disease Control, despite being at a greater risk for developing complications from the influenza virus, only one-third of all adults who have asthma, and one-fifth of those younger than age 50, get the vaccines annually.”
He feels, therefore, that this is especially troubling because children with asthma are particularly at risk for developing influenza-related acute respiratory illnesses. “From 1976 to 2007, an estimated 3,000 – 49,000 people died annually from the flu. Most healthy kids and adults are able to fight off these infections, but people already in high-risk categories are especially susceptible.”
Probably not a great idea to put this info in the hands of a confirmed hypochondriac — and a health writer, no less — but here are some of the risk factors he shared with me for acute respiratory illness:
• Anyone over 65 years.
• Anyone who resides in a long-term care facility or nursing home.
• Those aged 2-65 with a long-term lung condition (among other diseases).
• Anyone aged 19-64 who is a smoker or has asthma.
“Having asthma and COPD does not put you at a greater risk for getting the flu, but it does mean that you are at a higher one for developing complications,” Smart explains. “The influenza virus can increase inflammation and mucous secretions. This exacerbates breathing symptoms in those with illnesses who are already predisposed to swollen, inflamed and sensitive airways.”
At the end of the day, Smart insists that there is an overwhelming amount of evidence that patients who suffer from asthma and other high risk conditions would benefit greatly from the vaccination; especially since they are more susceptible to complications and hospitalizations if they contract the flu virus.
Finally, while a flu shot can be taken any time after October, “flu season generally peaks in January and February,” Smart concluded. “So if you haven’t already, get vaccinated. Now is the time. If you have questions, your specialist pharmacist can help.”
So arm yourself with the best possible anti-flu weapons this season. Just remember, as they will undoubtedly say at the Super Bowl: A good offense is the best defense.