PUBLISHED: 9:08 AM on Tuesday, October 17, 2006
More vaccine, flood of information may minimize impact
Flu fighters
Ryer Appeldoorn, 12, doesn't want to get a flu shot.

But he will.

The boy was ill for two weeks last year with the bug. He remembers how quickly the symptoms appeared - within a day or two he was listless, coughing, sneezing and aching. It lasted two weeks, and spread to his sister Anna, 9, and his parents, Lori and Dave.

"It was awful," he said.

This year, in addition to flu shots, the family has agreed to get a minimum of nine hours of sleep each night and block coughs and sneezes with the inside of an elbow instead of the palms of their hands, to reduce the spread of germs.

Though the Appeldoorns aren't sure how severe this flu season will be, they plan to take every possible precaution, including getting the flu shot or the newer alternative for people between ages 5 and 49, the nasal spray.

"I'll probably call the doctor to see which one is the best," said Lori Appeldoorn.

Predicting the strength of the incipient flu season is nothing like predicting the weather.

"It's harder. Nobody knows which way the bugs are going to go, partly because people are so mobile," said Sue Schryber, an immunizations supervisor for 16 years and a nurse for 29.

"You can be in Hong Kong in the morning and New York at night, or San Francisco or Chicago, and been in touch with some (virus). It's not like the old days where it took two to three months for (a virus) to be on the way."

The difference between a flu and the common cold

The contagious respiratory illness we know best is the seasonal flu.

Each season varies in intensity. Symptoms of the virus - fever, aches, pains, runny nose and coughing - last two to seven days; complete recovery can take longer. In extreme situations, complications can result in hospitalization or death.

Often, people confuse the flu with a cold. Both are respiratory illnesses, caused by different viruses. Colds tend to be milder and not have such complications as pneumonia or bacterial infections that require a trip to the hospital.

There is no vaccine for the common cold.

Scientists are getting better at making the educated guess required for developing flu vaccines.

They do it by monitoring flu activity across the globe. They pick the top three threats and blend dead virus strains to make the vaccine.

Early vaccination is smart, Schryber said. Signs of the illness have been present since August; the season kicks into high gear in November, typically peaking between January and March.

"It takes most people's bodies 10 to 14 days to produce protection against those strains of the flu," she said. "Ideally we would like the flu vaccine to get into people before flu season starts, so they have the protection."

In many cases, insurance covers the cost of the shot; check with providers to be certain - some require getting vaccinated at specific clinics.

She said the people most likely to have serious complications from the flu are children 6 months through age 4; people 50 and older who have chronic illness, such as heart disease or diabetes; and those 65 and older.

"People ages 5 to 49 are at risk of getting the flu, but have a lower likelihood of being hospitalized," she said.

People who are allergic to eggs or have had a reaction to past shots should not get the flu vaccine.

If you skip the shot and end up sick, Schryber suggests getting tested to be sure.

"Just because you have the symptoms, doesn't mean you have 'the flu,'" she said, pointing out that other illnesses may mimic the flu.

Getting tested helps public health officials track the bug's path across the country.

The American Lung Association has a Web site to help people locate clinics.

The ALA recommends calling to confirm the clinic is being held and whether it accepts insurance; parents should confirm the clinic vaccinates children. People who are feeling sick or feverish should reschedule the shot.

How to keep germs at bay

• Wash hands with soap and water often or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

• Avoid contact with people who are ill.

• Get an annual flu shot, unless you are allergic to eggs or have had a reaction to a previous flu shot.

If you do get sick:

• Stay home from work, school or social gatherings.

• Protect others by covering your mouth and nose with a tissue or inner elbow when coughing or sneezing.