Your Health

Flu watch

Last year's flu season caught many by surprise. Have you taken steps to protect yourself this year?

Flu watch
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Who should get the flu vaccine?

How to tell the difference between a cold and influenza

Hand washing

BY SUSIE STRACHAN
Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, November / December 2015

Consider it the calm before the potential storm.

The influenza season in Manitoba - and much of North America - officially starts around the beginning of November. That's when health officials start to keep track of the number of laboratory-confirmed cases of influenza.

But if previous years are any indication, the flu season won't really kick in until about mid-to-late December or early January. That's typically the time Manitoba hospitals tend to have a rush of patients with flu-like symptoms and when lab-confirmed cases start to rise.

Last year is a case in point.

Between Nov. 1 and Dec. 13, there were 57 lab-confirmed cases of influenza in the province, according to the Manitoba Influenza Surveillance Report. But by Dec. 27, that number had jumped to 208 cases of influenza, including 12 people who were hospitalized and two admitted to intensive care.

The numbers continued to climb until about mid-January. By Jan. 10, the number of lab-confirmed flu cases had increased to 689, with 158 people admitted to hospital, 24 admitted to intensive care and 16 deaths. From then until April - the usual end of flu season - the number of new cases dropped dramatically. 

The final numbers for the 2014/15 flu season, as reported in the June influenza surveillance report, were 1,289 lab-confirmed cases of flu, 363 hospitalizations, 66 people admitted to intensive care, and 48 deaths associated with laboratory-confirmed cases of the flu.

Given the experience of last year, health officials are understandably concerned about the coming flu season, partially because it is impossible to predict how it will play out.

"We can't tell if it's going to be a mild year for the flu, or if it's going to hit hard," says Dr. Bunmi Fatoye, a medical officer of health with the Winnipeg Health Region.

"But we do know that everyone will, at some point, come into contact with someone who will pass on the flu virus."

And therein lies the problem.

The flu virus spreads easily through droplets in the air. Those who become infected are contagious just prior to showing symptoms and up to seven days afterwards. They can spread the virus by coughing, sneezing or touching their mouth with their hand and then touching a surface, like a door knob or table top. It is estimated that the virus can last for up to 24 hours on hard surfaces.

Carriers of the virus can spread the flu without even knowing it. Various studies suggest that as many as one in five people may have a flu virus and not show any signs of illness. In other words, you can pass the virus to someone else either before you feel the symptoms or realize you are infected. This means your flu has the potential to cause serious illness in more vulnerable people, including seniors, children, pregnant women and anyone with a chronic health condition.

"If you're healthy, your experience with the flu might not be that bad," says Fatoye. "But you may come into contact with someone who has the potential to become seriously ill."

As a result, Fatoye is reminding people of the need to take steps to guard against becoming infected by the flu virus, to protect themselves as well as those around them.

Here are a few tips to help you make it through flu season without the aches, fever, fatigue and general misery that come with the virus.

Get the flu shot

The best way to protect yourself against the flu is to get a vaccination, says Fatoye.

This year's vaccine can be delivered by injection or via a nasal mist, something that appeals to children and those afraid of needles.

Flu shots are available for free through your doctor's office, pharmacy, QuickCare clinic, walk-in clinic or local community health office.

The vaccine itself contains four different strains of influenza, a pair of A-type viruses (code-named California and Switzerland) and a pair of B-type viruses (named Phuket and Brisbane). The vaccine, given either via injection or nasal spray, works to mimic infection, causing the immune system to produce antibodies that will fight  the flu virus when you get infected. The vaccine does not cause influenza.

Some people question the value of getting a flu shot because it is not 100 per cent effective. In fact, the effectiveness of flu shots ranges on average from 50 to 70 per cent, depending on the year. That's because the flu virus is constantly mutating, making it difficult for health experts and manufacturers to predict with certainty which strains of the virus will show up from one year to the next and which ones should be included in the vaccine. 

"There are many different strains of flu virus," explains Fatoye. "Every year, the viruses are monitored and scientists try to forecast which strains will be most likely to cause illness."

Last year's vaccine wasn't a good match for the viruses that were in circulation, she says. "But think of it this way: the vaccine offers protection to other influenza viruses in circulation, so that is better than no protection at all."

Get plenty of rest

In addition to getting a flu shot, there are other ways you can help your immune system guard against an invasion of the flu virus. One involves making sure you get enough rest. Proper rest helps the immune system guard against all sorts of infections, including the influenza virus.

Eat healthy

Eating a balanced diet can also help protect against the flu by strengthening your immune system. "The stronger one's immune system, the better its ability to fight off infections of any type, including the flu," says Fatoye.

Even when you aren't sick, you need protein to keep your body strong. Your body uses it to build strength and maintain what you already have. Lean meat, poultry, fish, legumes, dairy, eggs, nuts, and seeds are good sources.

Vitamin B6 comes in protein-rich foods like turkey and beans, as well as potatoes, spinach, and enriched cereal grains. Meats, milk, and fish also contain vitamin B12, a powerful immune booster.

Minerals like selenium and zinc also keep your immune system going strong. These minerals are found in protein-rich foods like beans, nuts, meat, and poultry.

Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables can also help provide the vitamins and minerals you need to keep your immune system strong, especially those that are a good source of vitamin C, like oranges, peppers and broccoli.

Any beverage is fine if you're thirsty, particularly clear liquids such as soup and juice or water.

Wash your hands

One simple way to avoid becoming infected with the flu virus - or spreading it - is to wash your hands frequently.

By using soap and water, or hand sanitizer, you're removing the viruses you've picked up by touching objects handled by many people, such as doors or escalator rails. And if you already have the flu, remember to wash your hands, especially after you cough or sneeze.

It's also important to cover your mouth when you cough. Remember, people who are not dramatically affected by the flu virus still have the potential to pass the virus on to those who are more vulnerable.

Make a plan

If you do come down with the flu, it is important to have a plan to respond. This is especially true of parents with small children, says Fatoye. "If children are sick, a parent needs to stay home with them instead of sending them to school or daycare. Likewise, if a parent is sick, they need the time off to get better. Make arrangements for daycare or relatives to take care of your children, and learn whether your place of work has a policy regarding sick days."

If you have flu-like symptoms, it's best to stay away from work or school. It's recommended you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone, except to get medical care or other necessities. Resting a full extra day gives you time to rebuild your energy and helps you get your appetite back, before heading out to work, school, shopping or other public gatherings.

Avoid personal care homes and hospitals if you are sick

Feeling a bit under the weather? Avoid visiting a hospital or personal care home where you might pass along the virus to vulnerable patients or residents. Again, getting a flu shot can help protect you and others against becoming infected with the influenza virus.

Susie Strachan is a communications advisor with the Winnipeg Health Region.

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