The influenza virus changes every year, which is why it’s difficult for medical professionals like me to predict the severity of each flu season. So, how do we plan for influenza season if the flu virus changes regularly? First, we recommend that everyone get a flu shot annually. And second, we study how the influenza virus works.
Influenza has two types of molecular spikes on the outside of the virus called hemagglutitin and neuraminidase. I like to call them H and N. There are 17 different types of H spikes and nine different types of N spikes. This means there are more than 144 potential combinations of the flu virus. Our bodies recognize flu by the order of spikes on the outside of the virus.
Different types of flu like to share information with each other, which is how the flu virus changes or mutates. When this happens, it changes the order of the spikes on the outside of the flu virus. If the order is different from what our bodies have been exposed to before, our body may not recognize the germ as flu right away and put us at risk for getting sick.
Because there are so many strains of the flu virus, the vaccine we receive every year has at least three different strains in it. However, there is a new vaccine offered in recent years that offers protection against four different flu strains instead of three. It’s called quadrivalent and is available at most physician offices and local pharmacies.
Research shows that once you receive your flu shot, the protection you receive from the vaccine declines over the course of the year. So, with the constant changes in the flu virus and wanting to have the best protection possible, it’s important that you get a flu shot annually and that you get it early.
In addition to getting vaccinated, it’s important that you follow these three tips:
1. Clean your hands frequently. The flu virus can live on surfaces anywhere from one to two days. If you get flu virus on your hands and then touch your eyes, nose or mouth, you could get the flu.
2. Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. People can touch their face around two to four times per minute. If your hands are contaminated with the flu or another germ, you could potentially get sick.
3. Avoid close contact with sick people. If somebody is sick with the flu and they sneeze, the germs can spread three to six feet from the sneeze. By avoiding close contact with those who are coughing and sneezing, you may be able to keep yourself from becoming sick.
If all else fails and you do get the flu, avoid contact with others. It’s no fun to share germs. Stay home and call your healthcare provider. Do not go to work or school until you are at least 24 hours fever-free without taking any fever-reducing medication.
Sue Boeker is a registered nurse and infection preventionist at Greenville Health System.