The Pennsylvania Health Department is once again encouraging Pennsylvanians to get their flu vaccine and practice healthy habits as the flu season begins.
According to Nate Wardle, press secretary for the state’s Department of Health, flu season officially starts this month and runs until May.
Influenza is a contagious disease, caused by the influenza virus. It attacks the nose, throat and lungs.
Dr. Nancie Fitch, Area Medical Director for MedExpress said symptoms of flu can be similar to those symptoms of a cold.
“I always stress that my patients look for some specific symptoms that are usually unique to flu,” she said. “Like a cold, flu may cause cough, sore throat, headache and runny or stuffy nose – but if it’s the flu, you may also have some more severe symptoms, like a fever, extreme exhaustion, severe body aches and weakness.”
Fitch added that while a cold typically starts slowly over the course of several days, flu symptoms tend to come on quickly, often within a few hours.
Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine encouraged residents to get their flu vaccine before the end of October or as soon as possible thereafter.
“The flu is serious and can be deadly, which is why it is so important for everyone to take the proper precautions to protect themselves, their loved ones and anyone they meet,” said Levine. “Last year, we had more than 122,000 cases statewide and 258 deaths. It is imperative that you get your flu vaccine now so you can be protected throughout the flu season. There is no better measure to protect yourself than to get a flu vaccine.”
Fitch said she recommends that her patients get the flu shot early, even before the start of flu season.
“It takes about two weeks for your body’s immune system to develop the antibodies that’ll help protect against the flu virus,” she said. “We know that flu germs tend to spread more quickly when we’re in larger groups – schools, at work, during the holidays – so it’s best to get the shot now.”
Getting an annual flu shot can decrease the risk of catching the flu by about 40% to 60%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Emergency room directors for both Highlands Hospital and Monongahela Valley Hospital reported that they have not yet seen any cases of influenza this season. While officials at Uniontown Hospital did not respond with information about whether or not any flu cases had yet been reported there this year, Fitch did say their MedExpress centers in Pennsylvania have certainly started to see patients coming in with influenza-like illnesses.
Brian Hair, director of the emergency room at Monongahela Valley Hospital, said that as of Oct 15, in the last 45 days, the emergency room has tested 97 flu samples that have all been negative.
“While the flu shot doesn’t completely prevent a person from getting influenza, it does weaken it if a person who has been vaccinated contracts it,” he said. “They have the ability to bounce back quicker – it makes the attack easier on their system.”
Hair added that it’s especially important for young children, the elderly, anyone who is immune compromised and anyone who is regularly around these groups of people to get the shot.
“You want to make sure that you’re adding this layer of protection,” he said.
In addition to the flu shot, the department of health said the flu nasal spray is also available this year, and both are recommended to protect against the flu.
Flu vaccines are available at your doctor’s office, pharmacy, local walk-in clinic or grocery store. It takes about two weeks for the antibodies from the vaccine to develop protection against infection.
Wardle added that in addition to getting vaccinated, Pennsylvanians are encouraged to practice healthy habits like covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze, frequently washing your hands during flu season and remembering to disinfect commonly-touched objects, such as door knobs, light switches, counter tops, cell phones and computers.
“If you do become sick with the flu, it is important to stay home and rest,” he said. “If you are at risk for developing serious complications from the flu, or feel extremely ill, you should see a medical professional immediately.”