Oh, flu-ey! Get shot, wash hands, stay well

It’s that time of year again: cold and flu season. Are you ready to avoid that “red-nosed” look this winter?

My office is flooded with phone calls and urgent visits for sick, sick, sick patients because a cold virus is laying everyone low.

The problem is that flu shots are almost always given during the cold season. So I’ve had plenty of patients call to say things like, “Please tell Dr. Hong that I’ve been lying in bed like Sunny von Bülow since I got that stupid flu shot."

Now we all know from doctors and literature that the flu shot doesn’t cause the flu, because the virus has been “beaten down” enough by the flu shot makers, so it can’t make you sick. However, I will note anecdotally that I usually feel achy, feverish (though my temperature has always been normal), and tired after I get my flu shot each year. I think it’s my immune system revving up antibodies against the flu virus (although it could also just be psychological).

Some folks could just be allergic to the flu shot (folks allergic to eggs can’t take the flu vaccine). But for most people, the illness that coincides with the flu shot is the common cold. There’s nothing common about the common cold, for it can be a big deal after a week of misery with nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat, coughing, and feeling run down. For those with asthma, COPD (compromised breathing), diabetes, HIV, advanced age, and cancer, bacterial infections of the sinuses or lungs can occur fairly easily.

So I tell all my patients who are getting a flu shot, “The cold is out right now. Avoid everyone! Okay, you can’t avoid everyone, but be sure to wash your hands and not touch your face.”

A cold– unlike influenza that you can catch just from breathing the virus in the air– is usually caught by getting the virus on the hand and transmitting it into the body by touching the nose or eyes. So I try my best not to shake hands. But the “bump” with a fist is so passé now. Everyone again insists on shaking hands. Because I’m Asian, I bow instead of shaking hands– or I hug. I love to hug.

The flu shot is only 50-70 percent effective. I can testify to this because I’ve had full-blown influenza three times despite having had the flu shot. It’s miserable: high fever and headache hits like a ton of bricks. All I wanted to do was lie in bed. I didn’t want to eat, and my body ached like I had run two marathons. A day later the stuffy, runny nose and sore throat start– and then the cough.

Young folks often think they don’t need the flu shot, but more and more are getting them. Missing work and complications due to the flu costs America an estimated $71-167 billion a year (probably close to the salaries of Wall Street executives).

Tamiflu can really lessen the symptoms and length of influenza if taken within one to two days of onset of the flu. Still, prevention is the best medicine. So buckle up this season and hope you don’t become a red-nosed reindeer and face the abominable snow monster!
Dr. Hook cracks a joke or two, but he’s a respected physician with an interesting website, drjohnhong.com. Email him with your questions!

Read more on: influenza