Flu and 'don't touch rules' | Dr. Petter

Every year at this time, a few of my patients adamantly refuse to get the flu shot.

Why? They claim it caused the flu in the past. My response is always the same.

There are many different viral strains that can cause the flu. Therefore, it might be merely a coincidental timing of the vaccine, and the presence of a different viral infection within the body.

In addition, the flu shot contains an inactivated, dead virus. Therefore, an individual will not get the flu from the flu shot.

Flu season in the United States is October through April. Every year 5-20 percent of our population will contract the flu. This results in more than 200,000 hospitalizations, and yearly deaths ranging from 3,000 to 49,000 (data collected 1976 and 2006; source Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

Fortunately, for the most part, this illness is preventable.

The flu is an extremely contagious respiratory illness. The incubation period (exposure to onset of symptoms) for the flu is quick, one to two days. Symptoms of the flu are unlike those of a common cold, which are mild, yet annoying. In contrast, the flu is truly miserable and unmistakable. Symptoms often encompass the entire body: fever, chills, muscle/joint aches, fatigue, diarrhea, headache, sore throat and/or cough. Typically, symptoms last for 2-10 days. A person is considered contagious until the symptoms and fever have been gone for 24 hours.

The best defense against the flu is getting vaccinated. Typically, the vaccine is reformulated every year in anticipation of the most common viruses that will cross the globe. However, this is an unusual year, in that the formulation of the vaccine is the same as last year. The vaccine contains three viral strains: influenza A (H1N1, H3N2) and influenza B.

Now is the time to get vaccinated. It takes about two weeks for the body to develop protection (antibodies) once you receive the vaccine. Even though the vaccine formulation is the same for the 2011 to 2012 flu season, you need to receive it again this year. The vaccine potency only last for approximately 4-6 months, thereafter it loses its effectiveness.

Who should receive the vaccine? It is recommended for those six months and older, especially women who are pregnant, people over the age of 50, and individuals with chronic medical conditions (i.e., heart disease, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).

There are two formulations of the flu vaccine: shots and nasal spray. The nasal spray is available for those who are needle-phobic, healthy individuals ages 2-49, and not pregnant.

Cost of the vaccine ranges from $15-$35. The vaccine is certainly cheaper than potentially missing a few days or a week off from work. The vaccine is available at most doctor offices, clinics and at selected pharmacies throughout the country.

Receiving the vaccine is a not a 100-percent guarantee you won't get the flu. Therefore, here are more tips to help lessen your chance of contracting this seasonal illness – "The Don't Touch Rules."

1. Don't touch your face.

The flu virus is not absorbed through the skin. Rather, the virus can live outside of the body and on surfaces (i.e., door knobs, light switches, counter tops) for up to 48 hours. You can pick up the virus on your hands and inoculate yourself by then touching your nose, mouth or eyes. Therefore, keep your hands away from your face.

2. Don't share your cough.

Cover up when you cough or sneeze. The virus can easily become aerosolized and travel through the air. A sneeze can travel over 100 miles per hour and release up to 40,000 contaminated droplets. The "hang time" in the air of the smallest infected droplets are influenced by humidity and the sunlight. The lower humidity and shorter daylight hours support the survival of the flu virus during the fall and winter.

Simply remember: "Use a tissue or a sleeve, when you cough or when you sneeze."

3. Don't touch or reuse a tissue.

The virus can survive on a dry tissue of up to 15 minutes; mixed with mucous, up to several days. Therefore, use a tissue once and then toss it away.

4. Don't touch hands.

When possible, avoid shaking hands during the flu season. Hands are one of the greatest sources of transmitting infection. The virus can survive on skin for five minutes.

Wash hands frequently and thoroughly throughout the day. If you do not have access to soap and running water, alcohol-based hand sanitizers (containing at least 60-percent alcohol), like Purell, work well. The virus can be inactivated by many products including soaps, detergents and various disinfectants.

5. Don't touch others when sick.

If you are sick, stay home. Directly having an infected person cough or sneeze in close proximity is a sure way to exponentially increase your chance of contracting the flu.

6. Don't share personal items.

When sick, do not share personal items with others such utensils, glasses, toothbrush and towels.

Dr. Linda Petter of Auburn, is a weekly feature on KOMO News Radio (1000 AM & 97.7 FM) every Saturday 7:45 a.m. (live) and 9:45 a.m., every Sunday 7:45 a.m. and 9:45 a.m. and Thursday during the p.m. drive. She trained at the Mayo Clinic and the University of Illinois, Carle Hospital. Petter is chief of the Department of Family Practice at St. Francis Hospital in Federal Way. She is a consumer healthcare advocate, and her books, "Healthcare On a Budget", and "Common Medical Sense", are available on Please visit her website,, or call her office at 253-568-0841.

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