A flu shot can only do so much.
The influenza virus started circulating early last year, driving up infection numbers across the nation, and Oklahoma is no different. More than 600 Oklahomans have been hospitalized because of flu, and at least 14 have died from the virus since Sept. 30.
Though the Centers for Disease Control said this year's seasonal shot was a good match for the expected influenza viruses, it only blocks infection between 50 and 70 percent of the time, said Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation President Stephen Prescott, M.D.
In other words, even people who got the shot can still be at risk.
“The flu vaccine is the best way to protect yourself, but it's not the only way,” Prescott said. “We don't stop using the brakes on our cars just because there are also airbags and seat belts. Just because you got a flu shot doesn't mean you shouldn't practice basic flu precautions.”
Washing hands is important regardless of the season, and it can prevent the spread of influenza viruses very well. The three main access points for viruses are the eyes, nose and mouth — all places most likely to be touched by hands. Washing keeps viruses from walking in an open door.
“The influenza virus is hardy. It can live on surfaces for up to 8 hours,” Prescott said. “If you touch communal-use objects, from a door handle to a table, wash your hands afterward or use hand sanitizer until you can get to a sink.”
Mothers tout this one as common courtesy, but covering the mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing can lessen the spread of flu as well. If there isn't a tissue nearby, use the crook of your elbow.
Those who do get sick should do their part to stop the misery of the flu in its tracks.
“Within 48 hours of getting sick, see a doctor and ask about antiviral treatments like Tamiflu,” he said. “They can reduce the impact and length of the illness by prohibiting the virus from spreading to new cells in the body.”
To avoid spreading the virus, patients should avoid other people if possible.
“It may seem rude at first, but people tend to understand and appreciate it when you explain you don't want to share your illness,” he said.
People are most likely to infect others with the flu starting about a day before their symptoms begin and through the first five to seven days of the illness. Once you start to feel better, you're not likely to pass it on to anybody else, Prescott said.
If all goes well, most people are clear of the flu after a week or so. But if it sticks around longer, return to the doctor, Prescott said.
A virus that hangs around can give birth to a secondary infection or even pneumonia.
“There is no silver bullet to absolutely ensure you won't get the flu,” he said. “But if you take reasonable precautions, your chances of avoiding a week of body aches, sneezing and nausea will improve significantly.”
Greg Elwell is a public affairs specialist with Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation.
OMRF (omrf.org) is an independent, nonprofit biomedical research institute dedicated to understanding and developing more effective treatments for human diseases. Its scientists focus on such critical research areas as cancer, lupus and cardiovascular disease.