Vanderbilt doctor answers common questions about the flu - WSMV News 4

Vanderbilt doctor answers common questions about the flu

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Dr. William Schaffner Dr. William Schaffner

A dozen people have already died from complications related to the flu in Middle Tennessee this season, so we asked one of the leading experts on the flu about what you can do to keep your family safe.

The first thing we wanted to know is one of the more popular questions this time of year: how do you tell the difference between a cold and the flu?

"The common cold is mostly from the neck up. It makes you feel uncomfortable - you sneeze, a stuffy nose, perhaps a sinus drip. Whereas influenza will go down into your chest and make your body ache and pain and real fatigue," said Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University.

The common cold will last about two to four days, and keep in mind: antibiotics won't help with a cold.

The flu can last for several days as well, and most people are better within a week.

But it can lead to other long-term issues like pneumonia.

"Flu can take a perfectly healthy child or adult and put them in the hospital within 48 hours," Schaffner said.

For many, getting better may require a trip to the doctor's office for something like Tamiflu. And there are certain people, like children and the elderly, who are at a higher risk for flu complications.

"If you're a person who is older and has one of the underlying conditions that may predispose you to complications of the flu - diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, immune compromised, if you are a pregnant woman - I would call your healthcare provider very, very quickly," Schaffner said.

Another common question: is it too late to get the flu shot?

"It's not too late, but, by goodness, if you haven't been vaccinated, please go ahead and do it this afternoon. It takes about two weeks or 10 days for your immune system to build up after vaccination. So if you haven't been sick, please go out and get vaccinated. It is the best way to prevent influenza," Schaffner said.

Schaffner says if you do end up sick, stay home. And if the kids are sick, keep them home as well.

"Children are the great distributors of these viruses in our population - first to each other, and then they bring them home to mom and dad," Schaffner said. "And that's, of course, why all the children should be vaccinated against influenza."

A common question people have is how long is someone who has the flu contagious?

"We usually say about a day after you get over your fever, and then you are safe to go back to school," Schaffner said.

Schaffner said 95 percent of the cases in Middle Tennessee so far have been the H1N1 strain of influenza, so a lot of people want to know if the H1N1 strain is covered in this year's flu shot.

"A perfect match, so the vaccine is right on target this year," Schaffner said.

Another common question: Once you get the flu shot, how long are you protected?

"If you get vaccinated once per season, that will carry you throughout the season. That said, remember, we have to get vaccinated each and every season, because the flu virus itself changes from time to time. It mutates, so we have to change the vaccine to keep up with virus," Schaffner said.

Many of you also wanted to know: Can you get the flu more than once in a year?

"It is theoretically possible, because there are sometimes, particularly toward the end of the season, different variances of the influenza virus out there. Of course, that's why the influenza vaccine protects against a number of different strains," Schaffner said.

Finally, another common question: How the flu is spread?

"Flu is transmitted person-to-person through close personal contact. If you get within my breathing zone, within three feet, I can transfer that influenza virus to you. I breathe it out, you breathe it in, and you can be infected," Schaffner said.

Doctors say that's why it's so important that you keep up on hand washing during the flu season.

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