The cold season is upon us and most of us are surrounded by sneezing, coughing individuals. Most of these sniffles are as a result of either the common cold or the flu. These are caused by germs (viruses) which are carried in the air. Some people refer to the flu as ‘influenza’ after the virus that causes it.
Common cold or the Flu?
Even though the common cold and flu affect the breathing system, they are caused by different viruses. The cold is generally milder than the flu. Colds are more likely to give you a stuffy or runny nose and a cough. The flu usually also has fever, body aches, extreme tiredness, and headache.
(Occasionally, a cold may give a slight fever and a dull, heavy sensation in the head). Finally, colds generally do not lead to serious health problems such as pneumonia.
Can the flu be treated?
Yes. With a group of drugs known as anti-virals. (These should not to be confused with antibiotics which kill bacteria). Antivirals must be started within a day or two of getting sick for them to be effective.
They usually lead to less severe symptoms of flu, they shorten the duration of flu by a day or two and most importantly, they help prevent complications such as pneumonia, ear infection, brain infections (meningtitis and encephalitis) and sinusitis.
Why do you need annual vaccines (instead of one-off)?
As children, we received vaccines for conditions like polio and we do not need to keep repeating them. With the flu, things are different. Flu viruses are constantly changing (mutating). This means that the vaccine you got last year may not be protective this year.
A new vaccine must be developed each year. In addition, animals and birds carry many flu viruses. Sometimes these animal/bird viruses mutate and become capable of infecting humans.
(Recent cases of bird and swine flu). These new flu ‘animal’ variants are a challenge because humans have no immunity against them. These must also be taken into account when making a vaccine each time there is an outbreak.
Can I get the flu from the vaccine?
No. The flu shot is made from dead (inactive) viruses that cannot cause flu. Some people, however, get some reactions to the flu shot.
The most common is temporary pain at the site of the shot. A few people report a slight fever and aches.
If you have been exposed to flu just before getting your shot or within 2 weeks of getting your shot, you will develop flu symptoms but it is not related to the vaccine.
In addition, the flu vaccine does not cover all viruses out there that can cause flu-like illnesses so if you get infected with a bug not covered by the vaccine, you will still get sick.
Is there anyone who should not get the vaccine?
Caution needs to be used in people with severe allergy to chicken eggs, a history of severe reaction to a flu vaccination, a history of a nerve problem called Gullian-Barre (GBS) and if you are currently unwell with a fever (you should wait until you are better to get the vaccine).
When is the ‘Flu season’ in Kenya?
Our flu season corresponds with our cold season – April to August. Even though you can safely get vaccinated at any time, you should ideally get your shot before or during this period.
Special medical conditions
HIV/Aids : HIV kills or damages cells in the body’s immune system. This destroys your body’s ability to fight infection. If you get flu, you are at a higher risk of prolonged and complicated illness with flu-related death. If you have advanced HIV, your immune system may not respond to vaccination.
Heart disease: Heart disease can make your body too weak to fight off the flu. The flu can make your heart disease worse. If you contract the flu, you are at increased risk of having a heart attack. You are also at greater risk of experiencing flu-related complications such as pneumonia.
Diabetes: Diabetes can weaken your immune system. This makes it harder for your body to fight the flu. You may have problems controlling your blood glucose (gets very high).You are also at risk of flu-related complications like pneumonia.
Cancer: Certain cancers and treatment for cancer such as chemotherapy can weaken your immunity. You are, therefore, at increased risk of complications from the flu virus such pneumonia and hospitalisation.
Asthma: Flu can trigger an asthmatic attack. Asthma puts you at an increased risk of complications from the flu virus such as pneumonia. It is the most common underlying medical condition among children and adults hospitalised with the flu (it can be severe enough to lead to ICU admission).
Other issues that increase your flu risk include kidney and liver disease, sickle cell disease, the elderly (over 65 years) and those under two years of age, pregnant women, morbid obesity and certain forms of arthritis (rheumatoid arthritis and lupus).
Cost to your company
World wide, it has been shown that the most common illness causing absenteeism from work is the flu. Most health insurance firms also report that it is one of the leading causes of visits to hospital out-patient departments.
The flu has been known to spread rapidly in a community and it is not uncommon to find an entire office full of people coughing and sneezing.
Productivity is naturally reduced during this period. It has been found that the most effective way of preventing flu among the working population is through vaccination.
In Kenya, the flu vaccine retails at Sh800 and is readily available in most of our health facilities. The vaccine can also be given at company clinics by a registered nurse or doctor.
Any queries? Email to: [email protected]