The CDC reports this year's flu shot may not protect against a strain of influenza that's hitting the U.S.
Q. Does this mean the flu shot is useless?
Not at all. Although this year's flu vaccine doesn't match two of the three main types of flu strains now in circulation, people who did get a flu shot and catch the flu get a much milder disease. This can make a life-or-death difference to people who are at high risk of flu complications, such as pregnant women, young children, the elderly,...
Three million doses of the FluMist nasal spray vaccine are available this year. Experts hope that healthy people who aren't in a group considered high priority for getting the flu shot will consider this alternative.
Unfortunately, FluMist is not for everyone. The vaccine is recommended for healthy persons who are aged 5-49 years and are not pregnant. This includes health care workers (except those who care for patients with severely weakened immune systems in special care units) and persons caring for children less than 6 months old.
Certain children under 9 who meet the recommendations require two doses of flu vaccine if they have not previously been vaccinated.
Preventing the Flu Without Shots
Short of getting the flu vaccine, there are many steps you can take to lower your risk of getting the virus.
"We are calling it respiratory hygiene," Walter Stamm, MD, professor of medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle, and president of the Infectious Disease Society of America, tells WebMD.
The most important thing you can do, Stamm says, is to wash your hands frequently. You would be amazed how often adults, not just children, put their hands in their mouths, he says. Although the flu virus is "airborne" in droplets of breath, the majority of it is probably passed by hand, according to Stamm.
The Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations has joined with a raft of other medical professional groups to recommend three easy steps to prevent infection with the flu especially during a time when there is a shortage of flu shots:
Clean your hands for 15 seconds. Soap, warm water, and a period of vigorous rubbing will wash viruses down the drain. Do this every time you sneeze or cough and especially before meals. Those alcohol-based hand cleaners are also good to have around the house or in a pocket or purse.
Cover your nose and mouth when you cough. Use a tissue, rather than a cloth hankie, or cough into your sleeve in the crook of your arm. Then wash your hands. The advice may be aimed at keeping viruses off your hands, Vincenza Snow, MD, director of clinical programs for the American College of Physicians, tells WebMD,
Avoid close contact. Stamm jokes that this advice means "fly first class." In a more serious vein, you should avoid crowded public places. And if you do feel ill (flu is characterized by rapid onset of fever, chills, and horribly aching bones), stay at home or keep your child at home. Do not go into work. Do not even run to the emergency room unless you have trouble breathing or a sky-high fever develops. In the hospital, you and your family will be surrounded by infectious people! "People with the flu feel so terrible, they usually don't go anywhere," Snow notes.