According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), every year there are around 5 million cases of severe flu with between 250 000 and 500 000 resulting in death. In South Africa the flu ‘high’ season is usually from April/ May through to August/September.
Called ‘seasonal influenza,’ flu spreads very quickly, especially in crowded areas such as schools and public transport. When an infected person coughs or sneezes, droplets infected with viruses spread and people close by breathe them in. The virus can also be spread by contaminated hands. To prevent transmission, people should cover their mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing and wash their hands regularly.
A cold is not flu
Colds are viruses too. According to the Mayo Clinic there are more than 100 viruses that cause colds. Like flu, colds hit the respiratory system causing a runny or stuffed up nose, watery eyes, perhaps a sore throat and sometimes a cough. You might also get a low fever.
But, unlike flu, colds come on slowly. Most people can feel themselves getting sick at least a day in advance.
What exactly is flu?
Flu is a viral infection that targets your head and chest – usually coming on suddenly.
You may experience some of these symptoms:
- A high fever (higher than 39°C) with chills
- Dry cough or sore throat
- Blocked nose or nasal discharge
- Sweating and shivering
- Muscle aches and pains, especially in the legs
- Fatigue and wanting to sleep all day
Get a flu shot
Bonitas Medical Fund recommends having a flu vaccine and says it is the first line of defence when it comes to protecting yourself, with studies showing it reduces the risk by about 50 to 60%. The vaccine trains your body to recognize flu and fight it. There are three types of flu viruses: A, B, and C. Type C has the mildest of all the symptoms but type A and B are the cause of the flu epidemics each year.
The vaccine is made up of a small, inactive part of that season’s flu virus. Being inactive, it cannot infect your body with the virus, yet it allows your body to make antibodies to fight it. In that way you’re building up immunity. Should a pandemic occur, at least your body has had time to acquire immunity against the current circulating flu viruses.
Most medical aids offer one free flu vaccine a year and it’s a good idea to take up the offer, otherwise head to your doctor, pharmacy or clinic and pay for a vaccine.
‘The annual flu vaccine protects you against the current season’s three or four most common flu virus strains,’ explains Gerhard Van Emmenis, Acting Principal Officer of Bonitas.‘Besides protecting yourself it also protects the people around you, especially those more susceptible to getting ill and, if you do still get flu, it will be very much milder.
‘About 14.08% of absenteeism in corporate South Africa is related to influenza,’ says Van Emmenis, ‘although the vaccine isn’t perfect and there’s no 100% guarantee, it is by far the best way to lessen your chances of getting it. By doing this you can play a part in maintaining your and your family’s wellness and keeping yourself healthy.’
Bonitas advises everyone to have a flu vaccine but particularly those in high risk groups and it’s best to have this before the end of April. These include:
- People aged 65 or older, especially if living in a retirement home
- Anyone with a heart and lung problems, including asthma or with chronic illnesses like anaemia, diabetes or kidney failure
- Immune-suppressed people, including those who are HIV-positive
- Caregivers and close contacts of any of the above.
- Smokers, as they are more prone to respiratory illnesses
- Cancer sufferers
- The WHO reports that some preliminary studies suggest that obesity, and especially extreme obesity, may also be a risk for more severe disease.
- Children under the age of 12 years
Children are also at risk
Dr Iqbal Karbanee from Bonitas Babyline – the first dedicated children’s health advice line in South Africa says, ‘Children in particular have an immune system that is not yet fully developed. As a result they are very susceptible to getting the ‘flu. In addition, children are often exposed in crowded environments such as creches and pre-schools. There is a constellation of symptoms and signs to look out for including increased secretions from the nose, cough, fever, a sore body, diarrhoea and vomiting.’
Vaccines for toddlers and children
For children over the age of six months having the vaccine for the first time, two doses are indicated, given one month apart. If a child has had a ‘flu vaccine before, then only one dose is required. Up to the age of 8 years, the dose of the vaccine given to children is half the adult dose. If a child is ill, the illness should first be treated fully before a vaccination is done.
Prevention is best
The most effective preventive measures are to reduce spread and contact through isolation when a child is ill. Keeping your child out of pre-school is essential to prevent further spread, or letting them staying at home until they feel better. ‘We realise these measures are subjective and not always possible,’ says Dr Karbanee, ‘so the best, safest and most cost-effective method of prevention remains vaccination.’
Remember taking antibiotics when you have a virus will not help and in some cases do more harm than good. It is only when it turns into a bacterial infection, following an infection with viral influenza, that an antibiotic can be taken. Signs of a bacterial infection include: Sinus pain, earache, a sore throat and a cough that lasts longer than 7-10 days.
To get better take the prescribed medication, stay in bed, drink lots of fluids and give your body time to fight the infection.
Both flu and colds are contagious which means you do need to take time off work to recuperate – this will help avoid spreading the disease and with the help of anti-viral medications, supplements and bed rest, you can get yourself well quickly.
Myth: I had a flu vaccine last year, so I don’t need to go again
Reality: Wrong. Due to changes in the genetic material of flu viruses, new strains of the virus emerge each year. So, last year’s flu shot simply won’t protect you against this year’s viruses 2017 has the following strains: A types Hong Kong and Michigan and type B Brisbane
Myth: I can’t have a flu shot because I am allergic to eggs
Reality: There are flu vaccinations which don’t have egg as an ingredient. If you have an egg allergy speak to your doctor before you have the injection
Myth: The vaccine is painful and will make me sick anyway
Reality: Most people don’t experience any pain other than a slight prick from the vaccine. If you do have a reaction to the vaccine it is usually at the injection site including slight pain, swelling and redness or possibly fever, chills, headaches or muscle aches. Symptoms usually last less than 48 hours, much shorter and less intense than a bout of actual flu.
Myth: I’ll get the flu vaccine when I have the flu
Reality: People who already have acute illness associated with fever or flu infections should only get the flu vaccine after these symptoms have disappeared. The flu vaccine should also be avoided by children under six months old and people with allergies to gelatine, eggs and antibiotics.
Myth: The flu vaccine is expensive
Reality: You can get a flu vaccination at your local, pharmacy or clinic for around R100. If you prefer to you can go to your GP but will probably be charged for a consultation. Most medical aids pay for one flu vaccine a year. For those not on medical aid, it is a small investment for keeping healthy through winter. Bonitas members’ flu vaccine is paid for from risk so won’t affect other benefits.
So don’t hesitate, vaccinate!