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Daily Checkup: Flu shots work

Dr. Stephen Turner is a pediatrician whose patients range from newborns to 21-year-olds. Turner has been working in the field for more than 17 years.Mount Sinai

Dr. Stephen Turner is a pediatrician whose patients range from newborns to 21-year-olds. Turner has been working in the field for more than 17 years.

The Specialist:

As medical director of Mount Sinai Doctors Brooklyn Heights, Dr. Stephen Turner is a pediatrician whose patients range from newborns to 21-year-olds. Turner has been working in the field for more than 17 years.

Who’s at risk:

As many as one in five Americans come down with the flu every year. The infection leads to more than 200,000 hospitalizations and more than 36,000 deaths annually.

“The flu is a sickness caused by the influenza virus, which is a respiratory virus,” Turner says. “Flu virus causes high fever, cough, chills and body ache. Usually patients are significantly ill for five to seven days.”

People tend to say “flu” as part of a catch-all phrase for any manner of viral infections.

“Many of use ‘flu’ loosely at this point to refer to many illnesses, especially anything caused by a virus,” Turner says. “For instance, people often say they have a ‘stomach flu,’ even though by definition flu is a respiratory infection.”

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the flu vaccine for everyone over the age of six months, except people who have had a previous allergic reaction to it.

“There are a number of different flu vaccines and the dosage varies by age,” Turner says. “For instance, young children who have never had this vaccine get two doses a month apart in the first year.” There are also higher doses of flu vaccine for elderly patients, because they don’t respond as well as other age groups to the vaccine.

One reason it’s crucial to get the flu shot: flu spreads extremely quickly and easily.

“Flu is very contagious and has a very short incubation period,” says Turner. “So if you were sitting in my office and I had the flu, there’s a good chance you’d have the flu and be sick tomorrow.” Most patients fall ill within one to four days of exposure to the flu virus.

It’s not possible to get the flu from the flu shot because the vaccine uses a dead virus.

“You’ll hear people say that they got the flu vaccine and still got sick, but there are a few explanations for how that could happen. Often, whatever illness you had wasn’t actually the flu,” Turner says. “It also takes two weeks for the vaccine to work. And because there are many strains of flu, no flu vaccine can give 100% for all kinds of flu. However, even if the flu vaccine offers 50% protection, that could be the difference between life and death, or being hospitalized or not.”

The groups most at risk of developing a severe case of flu are infants and the elderly.

“The people most affected are the very young and the very old,” Turner says. “That’s because their immune responses aren’t as strong, so they can’t fight off infections as well as everyone else.’

It’s also important for pregnant women to be vaccinated, because the antibodies their bodies produce will protect both the woman and the baby.

Some health problems make people especially vulnerable to flu. “People with compromised immune systems are at higher risk of developing severe flu,” Turner says. “So it’s especially important that you get the flu vaccine if you have asthma, diabetes, cancer or if you’re traveling internationally.”

The duration of flu season varies from year to year, but it’s probably longer than you thought.

“Here in New York, flu season generally starts in October and runs as late as May,” says Turner. “Flu season usually peaks around January and February, and you can actually track how many cases are being reported thanks to the CDC website (cdc.gov/flu/).”

Signs and symptoms:

What does flu look like? “The classic symptoms are high fever, cough, body aches and chills. You just really feel miserable,” Turner says. “One way to tell if you might have flu or not is by looking for respiratory symptoms. If you’re not coughing, you don’t have the flu.”

Traditional treatment:

Despite increased awareness of the flu vaccine, millions of Americans a year still come down with flu.

“If you do get the flu, first of all, stay home so you won’t get other people sick,” Turner says. “You want to keep well-hydrated and rest, and you can also take Tylenol or Motrin to keep the fever down.” It usually takes between five and seven days for flu to run its course.

There are other medications that can help you recover from flu.

“Tamiflu is a medication that helps fight flu, but you need to take it as soon as possible after being exposed — ideally, within two days of getting sick,” Turner says. “There are also four antiviral drugs that have been approved for flu patients.”

If you know you’ve been exposed or suspect that you’re coming down with the flu, call your doctor so you can get a flu test. “We now have a rapid flu test that takes just 10 minutes. If you do test positive for flu, then your doctor can put you on Tamiflu to shorten the course of your illness,” Turner says. “We can also use Tamiflu preventively. For instance, we can recommend that siblings or classmates who would have been exposed to flu also take Tamiflu.”

What can you do to prevent flu? “The key steps you can take are to get vaccinated, wash your hands a lot and cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze,” Turner says. “There is even a nasal spray version of the flu vaccine that is great for kids, because there’s no needle. It’s a modified live virus, so it’s still not possible to get sick from it.” The nasal spray vaccine is approved for healthy individuals age 2 to 49.

Research breakthroughs:

Flu is the topic of many promising research projects and trials.

“Researchers are working on a universal flu vaccine, one that would cover every strain of flu, and that you wouldn’t have to get every year,” Turner says. “The idea is that you would get the vaccine once and then get a booster shot occasionally.”

Questions for your doctor:

There’s no reason to wait for your doctor to broach the topic of flu shots. Go ahead and ask, “Should I be vaccinated for flu?” Alternatively, if you suspect that you already have flu, then ask, “Can I get a rapid flu test?”

“Getting everyone vaccinated for flu is one of the best things you can do to protect the health of your family,” says Turner. “Get your kids vaccinated now and there’s a strong chance you can skip this flu season altogether.”

What you can do:

Get informed.

The CDC runs a wonderfully comprehensive and easy-to-use site at cdc.gov/flu.

Mount Sinai also hosts patient-targeted information: mountsinai.org/patient-care/health-library/treatments-and-procedures/seasonal-influenza-vaccine.

Get vaccinated. Every year. “The reason we need flu vaccine every year is because the flu virus changes every year,” Turner says.

The rules drummed into us as schoolchildren still hold: washing your hands a lot and covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze are essential for preventing the spread of germs.

By the numbers:

— Anywhere from 5-20% of Americans will come down with the flu every year.

— 200,000 Americans annually are hospitalized for flu, and 36,000 die.

— Flu shots are recommended for every American, age six months and up.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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