Each year, many myths and misconceptions circulate about "flu shots." People tend to have a variety of opinions about whether they are worthwhile and whether they actually make a difference in terms of protection against the flu. One reason for this is that the effectiveness of the flu vaccine can vary from season to season. Additionally, there are a number of factors that contribute to the likelihood that the flu vaccine will protect from the flu.
This year, you may have heard that the "flu shot" may not protect against the flu. What this means is that the vaccine may not be very well matched for the actual influenza viruses that are making people sick. While this doesn't mean that the flu shot won't work, a recent alert from the Centers for Disease Control suggests that over 50 percent of the viruses being seen in patients may be structurally different than those included in this year's versions of the flu shot.
The traditional flu shot works by exposing you to particles or weakened versions of the influenza virus. After receiving the shot, your body builds antibodies in response, "arming you" against the flu. Each year, the viruses in the shot must be suggested by the scientific community a year in advance. Some years they are right, some years not.
Sixty percent of healthy individuals typically become protected from the flu after receiving the influenza vaccination. People with chronic illnesses often have a lower response rate. For example, patients with kidney disease and those who are on dialysis typically have an antibody response rate as low as 30 to 40 percent. Patients with kidney transplants may also have a similar lowered response rate. Even with the lower response, flu vaccination is very important.
This year, since the flu shot may not contain the proper viral particles, everyone, but especially those with compromised immune systems, needs to be more aware of their risk for developing the flu. Here are five tips to be a flu survivor this season:
- Wash your hands frequently. Flu spreads by person-to-person contact. Wash your hands frequently during the day and always before eating. As you make direct physical contact with other people, by shaking hands, or indirect contact, such as through public transportation, make sure to wash your hands or use a sanitary gel containing alcohol to remove virus particles from your hands. Good, old-fashioned hand washing still remains the best way to prevent the spread of the flu and to maintain your own health.
- If you are sick, stay home. If someone around you is sick, stay away. This sounds simple, but we need more people to think of others before they go to work or participate in activities that could expose others to their germs and infections, including the flu. This is the best way to prevent epidemics. As we saw with Ebola and is also true with influenza, self-imposed quarantine will stop transmission of the virus and keep more people free of illness. Although not popular in the U.S., many countries around the world encourage people to wear masks over their mouth and nose while in public to prevent the spread of viruses.
- Time is of the essence. Contact your healthcare practitioner early when you have flu symptoms. While flu shots won't protect all individuals from getting influenza, they can shorten the illness, prevent hospitalization and prevent secondary pneumonia. There are also anti-viral agents such as Oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and Zanamivir (Relenza) that can be taken at the first sign of influenza. These drugs can also shorten its course, prevent or shorten hospitalization, and reduce risk of secondary pneumonia. Keep in mind that the dose of Oseltamivir must be adjusted for patients with kidney disease depending on the level of kidney function. Zanamivir is an inhaled medication and Oseltamivir comes in capsule and liquid forms. It is best to begin treatment with one of these drugs within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms.
- Make sure all of your other vaccinations are up to date. Whooping cough (pertussis) and pneumonia are also seen at higher rates at the same time of year as influenza. You can prevent these illnesses by receiving the pneumococcal vaccine (Pneumovax and Prevnar) and the pertussis vaccine, which is often given with the tetanus and diphtheria as a Tdap vaccination. Immunization helps in two ways. It prevents the illness in most vaccinated individuals and it helps to stop the spread of illness in a population such as schools, nursing homes and places of work.
- Avoid non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). If you have a fever or pain, drugs such as Motrin, Advil, Ibuprofen, Naproxen and Aleve should be avoided if you have reduced kidney function. Always take medications exactly as prescribed or according to the directions on the over-the-counter packaging. Stay well hydrated and make sure you take your temperature and your blood pressure if you are sick. This way you can accurately inform your physician about your symptoms. It is sometimes a good idea to check with your physician about whether you should continue your diuretics (water pills), as this can lead to dehydration if you are ill. Acetaminophen (Tylenol and others) can be safely taken with kidney disease. Aspirin can be taken by adults but should be avoided in children because of the risk of Reye syndrome.
Flu shots may still protect you and others from getting the flu -- it's not too late. Follow these tips to get through the flu season, and for more health tips this holiday season, visit the National Kidney Foundation at www.kidney.org.