Recently, while I was attending to a patient at the Paramus office of Tenafly Pediatrics, the mother–let’s call her Mrs. Schwartz-asked me, “Doctor Stiefel, what are your thoughts on the flu?”
Conjuring up my most serious face, I responded, “Mrs. Schwartz, I’m against it.”
Of course, Mrs. Schwartz was probably asking me my opinion about the flu vaccine. So let me expand my answer slightly. We at Tenafly Pediatrics, along with the rest of the medical community, are pro the flu vaccine and anti the flu illness.
Influenza, which is commonly called the flu, is caused by a virus that can infect your respiratory tract. Typical symptoms can include fever, cough, runny nose, sore throat, headaches and muscle aches. Intestinal symptoms, such as vomiting or diarrhea, tend to affect children more than adults.
It’s nearly impossible to predict in advance whether it will be a light or a heavy flu year. The strain of influenza that arrives every year changes. You catch influenza from droplets that can be spread when people cough, sneeze, or even talk. And to make matters worse, you may be contagious a full day before symptoms develop, so it’s very difficult to avoid contact with the virus.
There are certain common sense actions you can take to avoid catching the flu. Keep yourself and your child away from people who are sick as much as possible. Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue or sneeze and cough into the crook of your arm. Wash your hands often with soap and water, or an alcohol-based hand cleaner, especially if you cough or sneeze. Try not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth if you can avoid it. Germs can be spread that way. Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces, especially if someone at home is sick.
By getting vaccinated against the flu, you can prevent these symptoms from developing and avoid missing work and school. But even more important than that, you can avoid the complications that can sometimes accompany the influenza virus. These include ear and sinus infections, bacterial pneumonia, and dehydration. People with underlying conditions like asthma, heart disease, or diabetes run the risk of worsening their chronic medical conditions from the flu. You should take the flu seriously. Hundreds of thousands of people get hospitalized every year from the flu in the United States, and thousands of people die from flu related complications (between 3,000 and 40,000 fatalities per year over the last thirty years).
Although influenza activity tends to peak in January or later, flu outbreaks can start as early as October. Since the vaccine can take up to two weeks to provide full protection, we recommend getting vaccinated as soon as possible. And since the strains of the influenza virus change yearly, you need to get vaccinated every year.
Vaccination for the flu is available for children ages six months and up. It is safe, it is effective, and it saves lives. Flumist, a nasal spray version of the vaccine, is available for children ages 2 years and up, so if your children are needle-phobic, they can just take the Flumist and be protected. You can receive Flumist until age 50.
As pediatricians, we aim to prevent illness as well as treat it. That is why we strongly recommend the flu vaccine. One small injection or nasal spray can prevent one to two weeks of an unpleasant illness and its serious complications.
And so, Mrs. Schwartz, those are my thoughts on the flu.
Larry Stiefel is a pediatrician at Tenafly Pediatrics. Most days he can be found in the Paramus location.
By Dr. Larry Stiefel