Flu season is upon us and if you haven’t got your influenza shot yet, you are in luck. Although immunizations are normally given in October and November, this year Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi is one of the outlets giving out flu shots daily through to mid-December. The shots are available from Sunday to Thursday from 9am to 8pm on the ground floor of the hospital. Visitors must present an Emirates ID and insurance card. Now, here’s everything you need to know about influenza, immunization, and what to do when you get the flu.
Wish you got a flu shot?
“Getting vaccinated can help keep you from getting sick,” explains Dr Bobomurod Keldiyorov, a specialist in family medicine at the Canadian Specialist Hospital in Dubai. “Plus, being vaccinated can help protect those around you from getting sick. Flu immunization gives protection against seasonal flu and lasts for one year.”
The flu injection is made from the three strains of flu virus that are most likely to cause outbreaks in the coming winter.
“Each year these are slightly different, so a new jab needs to be made every year,” said Dr Keldiyorov. “Some people think the flu vaccine doesn’t work, because they have known people who got the vaccine and got the flu anyway. But that does not mean the vaccine does not work. Many people who get sick after getting the flu vaccine do not have the flu; they have a cold caused by a virus unrelated to the flu virus, so the flu vaccine can’t help with that.
“Even in years when the vaccine is less effective, it still helps prevent some cases of the flu and also helps to prevent serious illness and flu outbreaks.”
Influenza is an infection caused by a virus, explains Dr Nisha Soares, a specialist paediatrician at Sharjah’s Al Zahra Hospital, and as with all viral infections, antibiotics do not work so a flu vaccination is the best preventative remedy.
The flu vaccine essentially fools the body into thinking there is a foreign invader.
“The immune system is mobilized into making preventative ‘bullets’ called antibodies,” said Dr Soares.
“The best feature is that, in contrast to natural infection, this vaccine-induced immunity is for both A and B strains of the virus and lasts for the whole season. It is important to remember that no vaccine offers 100 percent protection and as the virus changes from season to season, so does the vaccine. You must vaccinate annually.”
Maisaa Al Sulaiman, a specialist in family medicine at Sharjah’s Burjeel Hospital, said flu can lead to other serious health problems, such as bronchitis or pneumonia, or make a person’s existing health problems worse.
“Therefore, complications from the flu can be deadly and anyone in a high-risk group should be vaccinated at the beginning of every flu season,” she says.
“Getting a flu vaccine each year is the best way to prevent the flu and the benefits include preventing serious medical events associated with some chronic conditions and reducing the risk of flu-associated hospitalization for children and older adults.”
The flu shot can be a life-saving measure for children and protects women during and after pregnancy.
How do you feel when you get the flu?
Sheena Shajehan, an Indian expatriate, describes what happened when her 12-year-old son Sahel got a bout this year.
“It started with fatigue, body aches followed by very high fever,” she says. “It was unmanageable at home and we went to Dr Nisha. Recovery from flu is a very slow process and the child experiences extreme discomfort. Sahel also had a severe cough and a stuffy nose. This experience has been a learning curve and I’ve decided to get him flu shots every year to reduce the risk of catching the flu.”
Flu symptoms can come on suddenly, explains Dr Keldiyorov. All forms of the flu can cause fever (temperature higher than 100ºF or 37.8ºC), extreme tiredness, headache or body aches, cough, sore throat or a runny nose.
Dr Soares said flu viruses attack and invade body cells, multiplying so fast that immunity is overwhelmed.
“This accounts for the feeling of high fever, extreme tiredness and bodyache with symptoms of runny nose and coughing.”
The influenza viruses are classified into different types and sub-types. Influenza A and B are responsible for the majority of illness in humans but different strains dominate each year.
The flu is contagious
Each winter a different strain of the flu virus causes an outbreak, and it’s quite easy to catch it from another person who has it.
“Flu is passed from person to person by droplets created when someone with the infection sneezes or coughs,” explains Dr Keldiyorov. “You can also catch it by touching a surface where the virus has been deposited. Flu can spread quickly in these ways, most often in October and November.”
With that in mind, at this time of year it is particularly important that you wash your hands frequently and thoroughly with soap and water, particularly after being in contact with other people, advises Dr Stuart Carr, chief medical officer at Snö Asthma & Allergy Clinic in Abu Dhabi. And don’t share water bottles and utensils as these can easily spread illnesses.
“To recover as quickly as possible and avoid spreading the flu to your friends and co-workers, stay home if you are sick, rest and drink plenty of fluids,” Dr Carr recommends. “Try not to go to the doctor for mild symptoms, stay away from infants and the elderly and cover your mouth when you cough.”
How to heal from flu
While symptoms usually last three to seven days in adults and up to 10 days in children, some people have them for up to two weeks.
“Your immune system will usually clear viruses that cause flu and flu-like illnesses,” said Dr Keldiyorov.
Treatment is aimed at easing symptoms until the virus passes through the body, as well as to prevent complications.
Experts recommend rest until the flu is fully resolved, especially if the illness has been severe. Paracetamol and/or ibuprofen can lower temperature and also ease aches and pains. Make sure to drink plenty of fluids. Additionally, avoid smoking and use decongestant drops; throat lozenges and saline nasal drops may also be helpful to ease nose and throat symptoms.
Antiviral medicines are prescribed for those who are severely ill or at risk of developing complications, says Dr Keldiyorov.
“Antiviral medicines can also be used to treat or prevent influenza,” said Dr Keldiyorov. “When used as a treatment, the medicine does not eliminate flu symptoms, although it can reduce the severity and duration of symptoms by about one day.”
While antivirals can help, the results are not as straightforward or predictable as with antibiotics, explains Dr Soares.
“The best medication is rest and hydration,” she says.
The best preventative, says Dr Carr at the Snö Asthma & Allergy Clinic, is to follow a year-round healthy lifestyle: eat a healthy diet, get regular exercise and adequate sleep, because having a healthy lifestyle is important for your immune system which will help you fight off infections, meaning less illness and faster recovery.
Jennifer Bell is an award-winning British journalist. She has worked for The National newspaper in the United Arab Emirates as well as the The Press, in the United Kingdom. Based in Abu Dhabi, she splits her time working for Arab News and PRWeek Middle East. She also contributes to regional titles including Gulf News, Arab Weekly, Arabian Business, and The Business Voice.