Friday, January 18, 2013

Local health officials share advice on how to stay well.

The flu season has started early this year, and Virginia, like dozens of states around the U.S., has reported flu cases in every corner of the commonwealth.

Health department officials have said it is too early to tell if this year's flu threat is more severe than in previous years, but it's beginning to look like it is.

So to avoid becoming a statistic, there are steps you can take to help ensure the flu passes by your doorstep. First and foremost, it is not too late to get the flu shot. It is available at the health department, your physician's office and pharmacies such as CVS and Kroger at Westlake.

Those who want to get a shot can walk in during pharmacy hours at CVS and Kroger. Be sure to call ahead; while there's no shortage of the vaccine, the supply varies from time to time and from store to store. Most of the time, insurance covers the shot, which costs $25 at Kroger and $31.99 at CVS.

"There is absolutely still time to get the flu shot, and there is ample supply available," said Haley Evans, Central Virginia Health District epidemiologist. "And we really encourage everyone to get the flu shot not just to protect themselves, but to protect those around them."

One reason viruses spread is because they can live for a long time outside the body. According to MayoClinic.com, the length of time that cold and flu viruses can survive outside the body on an environmental surface varies greatly. But the suspected range is from a few seconds up to 48 hours, depending on the virus and the type of surface.

So what can you do to protect yourself? In addition to the flu shot, wash your hands, eat a healthy diet rich in vitamins C and E and low in sugar. Sugar decreases the efficiency of the immune system. Stay hydrated and make sure you stay well-rested. Sleep deprivation also weakens your immune system. Exercise promotes healthy sleep patterns, which, in turn, help maintain a strong immune system.

"Echinacea is a popular supplement that helps keep away colds," said Gus Moysakis, a pharmacist at Wonder Drug on Stewartsville Road in Bedford County. "A cold itself can be a precept to the flu, but once you get the flu, there is really nothing that can curtail the duration of the illness."

There are anti-virals that may shorten the duration of the flu, but these medications are only effective if taken early, Moysakis added.

"There are anti-viral medications that will help shorten the duration of the flu, but we don't recommend that everyone with the flu go to their health care provider," said Evans. "Most people can manage the flu at home with rest, fluids and over-the-counter medications. We really recommend those at high risk of complications, those over the age of 65, under the age of 5 or people with chronic medical conditions such as congestive heart failure, COPD, or asthma go get the anti-virals."

Evans said local pharmacies, such as the Moneta Pharmacy on Rucker Road in Moneta, are a great resource for people trying to avoid the flu.

"If the patient has tested negative for the flu, we suggest items such as Zicam or Airborne to boost the immune system," said Laci Johnson, certified pharmacy technician and marketing director for Moneta Pharmacy. "We also recommend products to the patient that treat specific symptoms. These items include expectorants, antihistamines, pain relievers, decongestants and cough suppressants."

"We recommend a daily vitamin regimen for immune system support and overall health," said Femi Dinakin, registered pharmacist at Moneta Pharmacy. "As always, check with your physician or pharmacist to avoid dangerous drug interactions."

So what about those people who get the flu shot and still get sick?

"We know that the flu vaccine is not 100 percent effective. On a good day, it is only about 75 percent effective in healthy adults," Evans said. "It is not as effective in the elderly or those with less-vigorous immune systems."

If you start to feel ill, do not spread the "wealth." Do everyone a favor and stay home, treat your symptoms early and see a doctor if they worsen or do not go away.