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Common Sense On: Staying Well and Fighting the Flu

October 23, 2009
Senator Tom Harkin

Q: What is influenza? A: Influenza, flu for short, is a virus that causes symptoms such as fever, chills, a dry cough, headache, runny nose, severe tiredness and sore throat and muscles. The flu is easily spread from an ill person to others by coughing or sneezing. The flu usually strikes in late fall and throughout the winter. According to the Iowa Department of Public Health, the flu season arrives around Thanksgiving and lasts through the winter, with January and February being the worst stretch.

Q: How can I prevent the flu? A: An annual flu shot is the best way to reduce the chances that you will get the flu. It is highly recommended for those 50 years or older, those in the high-risk category (see below) and those in close contact with them.

Q: Who should get a flu shot? A: Anyone can get the flu, which normally causes a week or two of illness and discomfort. But for some, the flu can be deadly. In fact, it is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., claiming some 36,000 lives each year. Those with highest risk include the elderly, the very young, those with chronic medical problems, pregnant women and health care professionals. Anyone who wants to reduce their risks of getting the flu should be vaccinated every year. The groups recommended for a yearly seasonal flu vaccination differ from the groups recommended for the 2009 H1N1 vaccine.

Q: When should I get a flu shot? A: According to the Centers for Disease Control, the best time to get a flu shot is from October to mid-November. Shots can be taken at any time during the season. Bear in mind, however, that it takes one to two weeks after the shot for a person to develop a protective antibody. Because the virus may change slightly from year to year, the vaccine is changed annually and should be received each flu season. Also, a person's immunity to the flu declines over time, and may be too low to provide protection after one year.

Q: Where should I get a flu shot? A: You can get a flu shot from your doctor or pharmacist, or from a public immunization clinic. The Medicare program covers the flu shot and the cost of administration. For those covered under Medicaid, you need to check first with your local social services or health department. Many private health insurance plans also cover the flu vaccine.

Q: Is the H1N1 (swine flu) vaccine included in this year's flu shot? A: No, you must receive a separate shot for the H1N1 virus. However, you will be able to receive one at the same time as you get your regular flu shot although the regular flu shot is available sooner. Anyone is welcome and recommended to get a H1N1 vaccination, but according to the Centers for Disease Control, target groups include pregnant women, people who live with or care for children younger than 6 months of age, healthcare and emergency medical services personnel, persons between the ages of 6 months and 24 years old and people ages 25 through 64 years of age who are at higher risk for 2009 H1N1 because of chronic health disorders or compromised immune systems.

For more information, Iowans can contact the Centers for Disease Control at 800-232-4636 or the Iowa Department of Public Health Center for Acute Disease Epidemiology at 800-362-2736, or visit the CDC website at



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