By RACHEL COLEMAN
• Leader & Times
You’re coughing. Your nose won’t stop dripping. You feel horrible.
Is it the flu? Or is it a cold?
“A lot of people can’t tell the difference,” said Seward County Health Department director Martha Brown. “But getting a cold won’t kill you.”
Not all influenza cases result in death, but Brown said flu is nothing to take lightly.
“There are people who die from the flu. You do some research and you see the most upsetting things: babies die, older people die, sometimes even teenagers,” she said.
That’s why Brown strongly encourages everyone she meets to be immunized for the flu.
“All the time, we hear people say, ‘I’ve never had the flu shot, and I’ve never had the flu,” but that doesn’t mean it’s worth taking the chance.”
Because strains of flu mutate, each year a new immunization is developed. The flu vaccination actually protects against three to four different flu viruses, a way for researchers to hedge their bets against mass epidemics that have killed millions of people around the world. Each year’s infection rates vary. Some years, the mortality rate for influenza is around 3,000; other years, the number goes up to 48,000, according to some databases.
Brown said she wishes more people in Liberal and Seward County would be immunized. Thus far, the health department has administered 1,200 shots. Other sources for the flu shot include physician’s offices and some pharmacies.
People who fear the needle can opt for a non-injection immunization, Brown said.
“There’s another delivery method, the internasal flu mist, and it’s injected in the nose and you sniff it,” much in the way people use saline solution or nasal sprays. The intranasal innoculation is only for use by people between the ages of 2 and 49.
“If a person has asthma, they cannot receive it, because that method is the live virus.”
Brown has heard people object to the flu shot on the basis that it “might make them sick.” That’s simply not the case with the injection, because it contains no live virus. The mist does, but the viruses used to manufacture it are weaker than flu viruses people might encounter otherwise.
Some people feel sick after getting the flu shot or mist, but that is because it takes two weeks for a person to build up antibodies strong enough to fight off the disease. If exposed to the flu during that 14-day period, a person may still contract the flu.
“That’s why we encourage people to immunize early,” said Brown. “We haven’t really gotten into the full-blown flu season yet.”
Which brings back the question: how can a person tell the difference between flu and a cold?
Both are respiratory illnesses with similar symptoms. However, flu is marked by a sudden onset of feeling ill, extremely tired and achy. It’s often accompanied by a fever. If a person is coughing, the cough is likely to be dry and intense.
Influenza generally does not cause a drippy or stuffy nose. Nor does it cause intestinal or stomach problems. People refer to the “stomach flu,” but influenza has little to do with the digestive system. Sometimes children experience diarrhea with the flu, but that is not common.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, everyday steps can help prevent the flu. These include:
• Avoid contact with sick people. If you have a family member sick with the flu, keep that person home from school or work.
• If you have the flu, stay home at least 24 hours after the fever stops (except for necessary excursions to seek medical care).
• Cover your nose and mouth with tissue if you cough or sneeze and dispose of the tissue after use.
• Wash hands with soap and water, and wash them often. If that’s not possible, use an alcohol-based hand rub.
• Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
• Clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that may be contaminated with germs like the flu.
Of course, Brown noted, the surest way to avoid the flu is to get the vaccine. It costs $30 at the health department, and many insurance plans will pick up the charge.