Everyone 6 months of age and older should get a flu shot, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. credit Photo/Nathan Carter
“The flu shot is very, very safe and a smart thing to do for somebody who wants to prevent the flu,” said Paula Swinford, director of the USC Office for Wellness and Health Promotion.
Influenza kills approximately 36,000 people and lands another 200,000 in the hospital each year in the United States, according to studies by scientists from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That’s why the CDC recommends that everyone 6 months of age and older gets a flu shot. This protects those who actually get the shots, as well as the elderly, infants and other vulnerable people around them.
It’s easy for Trojans to comply with the CDC’s universal vaccination recommendation: Students can stop by the health centers on the University Park or Health Sciences campus for a free shot. Faculty, staff and the public can swing by the pharmacies on either campus to receive one for free or for $25, depending on health insurance coverage. It takes five minutes or less, and no appointment is necessary.
The CDC’s official vaccine information sheet explains that the flu shot contains dead, harmless influenza viruses, which don’t make people sick. Each year, the vaccine-makers include three strains that have raged through the Southern Hemisphere, where the flu season precedes that of the Northern Hemisphere.
“The majority of the time, they do get the strains pretty much right on,” said Jeff Goad, associate professor and director of student outreach for community health at the USC School of Pharmacy.
One of the most serious recent pandemics, 2009’s H1N1 flu virus, broke out in the summer, after the seasonal vaccine already had been manufactured. This year’s shot includes protection against an H1N1-like virus in addition to two other strains.
After getting flu shots, Trojans should protect their health by exercising, getting adequate rest, drinking lots of water and maintaining a healthy diet.
“If you exercise regularly, you’re constantly boosting your body’s immunity, a natural defense against viruses,” said Chelsea Pereira, fitness coordinator for Recreational Sports. “You want to have a mix of cardio, strength and flexibility.”
The body also builds its defenses through good nutrition, which includes a balance of whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats. However, “the foods that really support the immune system are fruits and vegetables – the vitamins and minerals and the antioxidants that are in them,” said Patrice Barber, dietician at the University Park Health Center (UPHC).
Barber recommended that people eat carrots, apples, citrus, and even frozen fruits and vegetables because of their long shelf lives. She also advises enjoying whatever produce is in season.
“The winter is when we see all those wonderful orange vegetables like acorn squash and butternut squash and pumpkin and sweet potatoes and yams,” she said. “And the fruits that are most unique to the winter: dates, kiwi, navel oranges, tangerines, persimmons, pomegranates and red pears — those are really juicy, sweet and wonderful, and they have a very limited season.”
But even if that red pear looks delicious, people should avoid taking bites from the food of others, thereby sharing germs.
“The more you keep things away from your mucus membranes, the better,” Swinford said. “You wash your hands, you don’t touch your eyes, you don’t drink out of other people’s glasses, and you basically create some level of personal hygiene.”
Alcohol-based hand sanitizer gels, available in automatic dispensers in many campus buildings, also can kill influenza and other germs, Goad said.
Even with these many precautions, flu is highly contagious. Even before someone shows symptoms, the airborne virus can be transmitted easily within a 6-foot radius, Goad explained. Sick people continue to “shed” particles of the virus throughout their illnesses.
Influenza symptoms are worse and longer lasting than a simple 24-hour tummy upset, often mistaken for flu but actually caused by something called a norovirus.
“There is no gastrointestinal symptomatology associated with influenza,” Goad said. “People who have influenza may not be able to get out of bed, and there are severe fevers and chills.”
To prevent spreading the disease, people should do more than cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze: They should stay home.
“You need to not be in community places where you accidentally sneeze or you cover your mouth with your hand and then hold onto the doorknob: It’s rude,” Swinford said. “If you’re sick, stay home. Your professor will actually cut you some slack.”
Sick, dorm-bound students can call USC Hospitality at (213) 740-6285 and order easy-to-digest “BRAT” meals — bananas, rice, applesauce and toast — which will be delivered to their rooms free of charge. They also can make appointments at the student health centers, where a clinician might prescribe an antiviral medication such as Tamiflu, which slightly shortens the illness’ duration if taken within 48 hours of symptom onset.
“The antivirals that we use only decrease symptoms by a day to a day-and-a-half, so they’re not wonder drugs,” Goad said. “They don’t completely abolish your symptoms, but they will get you on your feet faster.”
Clearly, the half-milliliter of prevention contained in a flu shot is worth a pound of cure.
“You’ll find the people who have had the flu – boy, they know, and they remember,” said Tammie Akiyoshi, nursing director at UPHC. “Those are the people who swear that they will get the flu shot every year after that.”