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Thursday, Jan 23 2014 11:01 PM

DINA MADDEN: Bucking these harmful myths: Here's why you need a flu shot

This year's flu season is in full swing, and parts of California -- Kern County in particular -- are getting hit very hard. As of January 23, there have been 79 hospital admissions and 11 deaths related to the flu. The majority of deaths have been adults between the ages of 22 and 60, which is unusual.

Most years there is concern about the very young and the elderly, however, the prevalent strain of flu this year is H1N1, and it seems to hit adults who are otherwise healthy or have common co-morbidities like obesity, diabetes or respiratory illnesses.

The single most important thing you can do to prevent the flu is get a flu shot. The flu shot works by helping the body build antibodies against infection with the viruses that are in the vaccine (these viruses are not live). It takes approximately two weeks for the body to build these antibodies. The vaccine is available in different forms including intra-muscular injection, intradermal injection and nasal spray. There is also a high-dose injection available for people 65 and older. New this year is an egg-free vaccine for people ages 19 to 49 who have documented severe egg allergies.

This year's flu shot protects against the H1N1 strain as well as other strains of flu. Everyone who is at least 6 months of age should get a flu shot every year. Additionally, it is especially important for people in certain high-risk categories with medical conditions like asthma, diabetes and chronic lung disease, women who are pregnant, people younger than 5 years of age and those 65 and older. Other people who should get a flu shot are health care personnel and those who live with, or care for, others in the above high-risk categories. People who should not get a flu shot are infants under the age of 6 months and people who have had a severe allergic reaction to influenza vaccine.

There are several myths about the flu; therefore it is important for everyone to understand the facts.

Myth: The flu isn't any worse than a bad cold. Fact: The flu is serious. The flu can lead to complications and hospitalizations. In some cases, it even leads to death, as we have seen right here in Kern County.

Myth: The flu shot gives you the flu. Fact: The flu vaccine cannot give you the flu. It takes two weeks or longer for your body to be fully protected after you get vaccinated. If you have flu-like symptoms after the flu shot, it probably means you were infected before the vaccine had a chance to work.

Myth: I never get the flu so I don't need the vaccine. Fact: Anyone can get the flu, even very healthy people. By getting vaccinated, you protect yourself and you avoid spreading the flu to others.

Finally, it is important to know what to do if you do get sick. Stay home so you don't spread your illness to friends and coworkers. Wash your hands frequently. If you sneeze or cough, cover it by using a Kleenex or the crook of your elbow. Lastly, eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, managing stress and getting plenty of rest are excellent ways to prevent flu.

You should see your doctor if you have trouble breathing, are wheezing, have tightness in your chest, have a deep cough with lots of mucus or have a very sore throat making it difficult to swallow. Also see a doctor if you have a fever of 100.4 degrees or higher for three days or more with a stiff neck, severe headache or rash; or if you have severe ear pain, sudden hearing loss or discharge from the ear.

Antibiotics will not help a cold or flu and can even hurt you by increasing your chances of being infected by bacteria that antibiotics cannot kill. If you have not yet had your flu shot, flu vaccine is still readily available through the Kern County Public Health Services Department, as well as many pharmacies and physician offices.

Dina Madden , RN, of Bakersfield, works for Kaiser Permanente as an Ambulatory Practice and Quality Leader. Community Voices is an expanded commentary of 650 to 700 words. The Californian reserves the right to edit all submissions for length and clarity.

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